If you could design a baseball player, maybe you would make him fast. Maybe he would be able to beat out almost any infield ground ball through sheer eye-bending speed. Maybe you would make him powerful. Maybe he would hit the longest homers, reaching parts of the ballpark previously untouched by flying baseballs. Maybe you would make him Yuniesky Betancourt just to be masochistic. (Stop it. You're better than that.) Me? I would make him powerful and smart. I would give him almost perfect knowledge of the strike zone. He would force the pitcher to make his pitch and if the pitcher didn't give in, he wouldn't swing. He'd either walk, strike out, or get his pitch. And he'd crush it. I would make what the sabermetric community calls a Three True Outcomes player. But I don't have to invent a player like that. That player already exists. He's called Adam Dunn.
Dunn is perhaps the cleanest player in baseball. I don't mean in the traditional sense of the word. No, it's entirely possible that Adam Dunn badly needs a shave and a shower. I mean in terms of the orderliness of his at-bats. In fact, you can't even call them at-bats. They are plate appearances. Yes, that sounds like some politically correct version of at-bats, but there is a difference. At-bat totals don't include hit-by-pitches and, most importantly, they don't include walks. And Adam Dunn walks. A lot. There's a finality to walks (and strikeouts and home runs) that doesn't exist in a grounder to the shortstop or a foul pop to first. Have you ever watched a game and seen a batter hit a grounder towards shortstop off the bat and thought 'well, he's out,' but then the camera switches viewpoints and you see the shortstop was playing over in the hole and the grounder goes through for a single? That's what I mean by dirty. It's a play that could go either way. The batter hits the ball, but the fielders play a central role in deciding whether or not he gets to first base safely or not.
That doesn't happen when Adam Dunn is batting. Only Adam Dunn decides the outcomes of Adam Dunn's plate appearances. When Dunn is batting chances are good one of three things is going to happen.
Thing 1: He'll Strike Out
Since Adam Dunn's first year in the major leagues, no player has struck out more, and it's not close. Ranking players by the most strikeouts since 2001 looks like this.
2. Alfonso Soriano
3. Carlos Pena
But, if you consider the huge difference in strikeouts between the players, the rankings should look more like this:
1. Dunn (2,069)
[grab a cup of tea]
10. Alfonso Soriano (1,579)
11. Carlos Pena (1,508)
That's not just winning, that's lapping the pack with a sign on your back that says "See ya, suckers!" You need a special commitment to win by that much. Adam Dunn has that commitment. He strikes out against right-handed pitchers (1,384), against left-handed pitchers (685), on the road (1,030), at home (1,039), in day games (705) and night games (1,364), in April (333), in May (390), in June (350), in July (315), in August (357), and in September (324). He strikes out in wins (888) and in losses (1,180). He strikes out when playing the infield (525), the outfield (1,232), or neither (312). He strikes out from anywhere in the batting order. He strikes out ahead in the count (502), and behind (891). He strikes out with runners on base, and with the bases empty. He strikes out in the clutch (431) and when the game is not in doubt (880). He strikes out against power pitchers (661) and finesse pitchers (656). He's struck out in 39 different ballparks not counting Spring Training. He's struck out in every inning and against every team in baseball.*
*There's a Dr. Seuss book somewhere in that paragraph.
I remember striking out once in Little League. I think I took a called third strike. I was so upset I went back to the dugout and cried. I had failed, hugely, and in front of everyone (read: some of my teammates' moms). I can still remember it three decades after the fact. Adam Dunn has played in 1,749 games, and on average he's struck out more than once in each game he's played. Roughly 43 million people have seen Adam Dunn strike out in person. How he isn't dehydrated from crying I'll never know.
On August 19, 2002 Dunn ended the game by striking out. The next day, he came to bat five times and struck out each time. Batting third the following day, Dunn grounded to first base. As the first baseman calmly fielded the ball and tagged first Dunn must have raised his arms to the heavens in victory. Or at least I'd like to imagine he did. What he probably did was turn and walk slowly back to the dugout.
That's because for Dunn striking out is almost second nature. Dunn told Dan Patrick on Patrick's radio show that his approach is to look for his pitch and try to hit it hard. That probably sounds like every other hitter, but the difference comes with the word "his." Many hitters look for a pitch, maybe even a certain pitch in a certain count ("he's probably throwing a fastball here on 2-and-0"). Many hitters also just hack at the first pitch that looks like they can drive it. Dunn looks for his pitch. He knows where his power zone is and for the most part -- he's not perfect -- waits for a pitch there. Strikeouts are a by-product of Dunn's approach. "I usually swing at the balls I can try to hit hard and hit out," Dunn told Patrick. If he doesn't get a pitch to his liking, or he does get one and he misses it, then a strikeout is a very real possibility. The other possibility is he doesn't get one and…
Thing 2: He'll Walk
Adam Dunn walks a lot. Another by-product of being a patient hitter is you don't often swing at pitches outside the strike zone. This often has the added benefit of making the pitcher throw more pitches. Sometimes the pitcher tries to be too fine with his pitches or can't throw his off-speed pitches over the plate. That's when Dunn tosses his bat aside and ambles on down the line towards first base.
Walks are not as exciting as singles, but often they're just as effective. Adam Dunn has value as a hitter because he hits for power, but if he didn't walk as much as he does, that power wouldn't be worth much. Sluggers who can pop one every now and again are littered all over Triple-A. They can hit for power like Dunn, and they won't hit for much batting average, like Dunn won't. The difference between them and Dunn is Dunn walks. A lot. He walks so much that he gets on base about 37 percent of the time, which is very good. This is despite his batting average only supplying 24 of those percentage points. That means 13 percent of the time Adam Dunn walks.
Dunn is so good at not swinging the bat that since he came into the league in 2001, he leads all baseball players in walks. Dunn has walked 1,181 times, 41 times more than Bobby Abreu and 66 times more than Lance Berkman.
While Dunn is a selective hitter with knowledge of the strike zone, the foundation behind this skill is that if pitchers throw the ball over the plate to him…
Thing 3: He'll Homer
Sadly Dunn doesn't lead baseball in home runs since 2001. No, he's third. Since coming into the league Dunn has hit 412 homers, 68 behind Albert Pujols and 46 behind Alex Rodriguez. That's heady company, and while those guys can supply value in ways Dunn can't (defense, for example), the fact that that Dunn is right there with them speaks to his ability and value as a player.
All that is what makes what FanGraphs' Dave Cameron calls "a failed experiment" so sad to me. Cameron points to this article by Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune in which it is made clear that the White Sox, the team that gave Dunn a $56 million, four-year contract just two years ago, are trying to change the way Dunn plays baseball. They're trying to get him to be less selective, to swing earlier in the count, to not look for a specific pitch but to let it fly. In other words, the White Sox are trying to take the Adam Dunn out of Adam Dunn.
Not surprisingly, it hasn't been working. Cameron's article was written a few weeks ago when Dunn was really struggling, hitting .136/.174/.295. A week later he was hitting .101/.151/.246 with 27 strikeouts and three walks in the first 19 games. But, in the 10 games since? Dunn is hitting .235/.395/.529 with eight walks and 11 strikeouts. It seems, at least, that Adam Dunn has scraped his 'new' hitting style and gone back to what made him successful in the first place: selectivity, more selectivity, and power, and damn the drawbacks.
We'll have to wait and see if the real Adam Dunn is back -- but how can you not love a player whose hot streak consists of hitting .241? For Dunn, though, hitting .241 isn't the point. It's the numbers that follow batting average in his slash line that matter most. And the truth is, even if you aren't Adam Dunn, those are the numbers that matter most in baseball.