October 4, 2012
In A Pickle
Stop What You're Doing and Read About Adam Dunn
I would like to alert you to the presence in the American League of a player you might not have heard of. He's a little bit under the radar, this guy. Baseball hipsters love him, though after this piece takes him wide, they'll probably abandon his cause because of overexposure.
Now, I'm not sure how much there is to learn from Adam Dunn. He's weird and unique, but it's not clear that he's weird and unique in a way that tells us anything new about baseball that we didn't know before. He's not a model for young players, unless those young players are 6 feet, 6 inches and 280-plus pounds and played quarterback at a high enough level when they were 17 to be offered and accept a scholarship at the University of Texas.2 No, what I suspect is that he's weird and unique in a way that illustrates one of the things I love most about baseball: the sheer diversity of models of success in the game. By which I mean that some guys are above-average because they have every skill known to man (Mike Trout), some because they're large dudes with a knack for knocking the everloving stuffing out of the baseball (Miguel Cabrera), and some because they're small, fast humans who chase down balls at a premium defensive position and get on base enough to be a mild asset on offense (Michael Bourn).
Adam Dunn, while he's racked up just 1.6 WARP3 this season, and while he was one of the most horrendous players anyone has ever seen in 2011, had a nice perfect decade, from 2001 to 2010, where his worst WARP was 2.2 and his best was 3.4. Above-average, like I said. And you know how he's done it. It's certainly not the way that Mike Trout has, and it's certainly certainly not the way Michael Bourn has. He bears some resemblance to Miguel Cabrera, though as big as Cabrera is, Dunn is simply massive, Death Star–like in a way that Cabrera simply can't match. (Cabrera's also a better hitter, but let's forget about that. This is Dunn's moment!)
I think the way to proceed is to resort to some facts.
Fact: Adam Dunn had 220 strikeouts through Monday's games.
Context: The major-league record for strikeouts is 223.
Stats update: Adam Dunn struck out twice in Tuesday's game, taking him to 222, where he ended the season after being held out of the final game.
More context: The holder of that 223-strikeout record is Mark Reynolds, a one-and-three-quarters true outcomes hitter (he's mostly notable for whiffing — he hits for power and walks, but not at a level worth paying much mind to in an Adam Dunn article). Reynolds set said record in 2009, which was not very long ago. Here, from Baseball-Reference, is how the progression of the record has gone over roughly the last 75 years:
Vince DiMaggio, 1938 (134)
What's your favorite aspect of that list? Here's mine: just once has the record been broken by merely one whiff, and that was way back in 1962. The record has grown by 89 strikeouts since the World War II era, and it's mostly done it in ways that elicit the word "shattered."
Now that we may be reaching the upper bounds of possibility, however, we'd expect the record to inch up slower than it has in the past. Then again, Mark Reynolds demolished his own record by 19 just three years ago, so maybe I don't know anything about the inner workings of baseball.4
This year fit the former model, though, the inch-by-inch one, as Dunn went down to the wire, heading into the final game of the year just one whiff shy of the record. Drama!
Fact: Adam Dunn's strikeout percentage is 34.2.
Context: The next-highest percentage among qualifying batters is 30.6, posted by post-hype poster boy Pedro Alvarez.
But qualifying for the batting title is so haaaaaard. You have to bat so many times! How about this:
Context for the context: One hundred plate appearances. The list of guys who got 100 plate appearances this year includes such powerhouses as:
OK? You get the point? Dunn struck out more often than all but eight players at that very very very low threshold. The list of players who got 100 PA this year include someone who's been in the league since 1996 without ever being good even once, someone who is at least 49 years old, and someone who is named after two entirely different classes of the phylum Chordata.
Contextualizing fact: Adam Dunn is fifth on the career strikeout list, 566 behind Reggie Jackson. Unless Reggie also whiffed a time or two, which I wouldn't put past him.
Context that undermines that fact: Derek Jeter is 22nd on the career strikeout list. Derek Jeter has had one season in his career in which his strikeout percentage was higher than the league average. That year was 1998, and Jeter whiffed in 17.1 percent of his trips against a league figure of 16.9. He was literally two strikeouts over the line. If he had grounded out against Greg Keagle on April 18th and Rick Helling on August 13th instead of striking out, he'd have spent his entire career below the league average for strikeout percentage.
And yet he'd still be 22nd on the career list.
Context-relevant David Simon interlude: You know what Slim Charles said to Cutty, right?
I'm loathe to disagree with Charles for reasons I'll redact because not all of you have watched the show yet, but he's wrong here. The game isn't the same.
We're done with strikeouts. There are other outcomes.
Fact: Adam Dunn has 41 homers and 19 doubles.
Context: Here is the full list of players this year, minimum 100 PA, with homers at least double doubles:
Hey, wait. Jason Donald? Ryan Flaherty?
Context 2: Context Harder: Let's try that again with the number of homers in parentheses:
Yeah. Mike Napoli missed a lot of time. Andruw Jones is a platoon player. The rest of the list isn't very good. Mainly, as far as weird all-homers no-doubles players go, Adam Dunn's only comparison is to Curtis Granderson. Even weirder is that they have the same number of homers. This just got spooky. I don't know, man. Let's move on.
Fact: Adam Dunn has 41 homers and 50 singles.
Context: Let's repeat the exercise from above. Again, minimum 100 PA, here's the list of 2012 players that satisfy the inequality above:
Note that Brooks Conrad has 105 PA on the year. He was called up by the Brewers on May 28th and got six plate appearances in three games from the 29th through the 1st of June. Had ol' Heart of Darkness got on a plane on June 2nd instead, the list above would be empty and Adam Dunn would be the only player with that particular weird distribution of singles and homers in the entire league.
Or I guess I could have just raised the PA minimum to 150. Whatever.
Explanatory fact: Adam Dunn has a BABIP of .249.
Context: From 2002 to 2012, there have been exactly 43 player-seasons in which a qualifying batter posted a BABIP lower than Dunn's.
More context: Of those 43 player-seasons plus the 16 immediately behind Dunn's in the BABIP ranking (so that Dunn didn't define the floor of the population), I counted 13 in which the player's offensive value was what you might call "good."5 In this era of baseball, in other words, roughly one player per year has had as few balls in play fall for hits as Dunn did this year and still had a noteworthy season.
Fact that blew my mind but in retrospect should not have: Not one of the players on the list of 13 comes particularly close to Dunn's strikeout rate this year. The highest is Carlos Pena's 2009 mark of 28.6 percent. The next highest is Jason Giambi's 18.3 percent figure in 2006. Dunn, you'll recall, is at 34.2 percent.
Why the "but": There are three items intersecting: striking out a lot; not getting hits on balls in play; and being a good offensive player. And I was shocked, shocked! that there were hardly any players in the middle of that particular Venn diagram.
But why was I shocked? I don't know. I must have been tired, because if you're not putting the ball in play and then when you are you're not getting hits, just how the hell are you providing offensive value?
The answers, of course, are homers and walks, and the former, in particular, is an illustration of why our dear uncle Colin Wyers beats the BACON (Batting Average on CONtact) drum so hard — not counting homers in a hitter's BABIP means you're removing the hardest-hit balls of all from the line. For some applications, that's fine. It's what you want. But here, where we're scratching our heads and puzzling over how Adam Dunn can be a non-negative player while whiffing and playing into the defense's hands, BACON seems highly appropriate.
Problem set: Having introduced that idea, I leave the question of Dunn's league ranking in BACON this season as an exercise for the reader.
Weird fact about contact with built-in context: Adam Dunn is 86th in double-play rate out of 469 players with at least 100 plate appearances. He is 15th out of 137 with a 496-PA minimum.6
Restatement in terms my lawyer friends will enjoy:7 Adam Dunn is near the top 10% of the league in avoiding double plays. Adam Dunn is graduating cum laude and being inducted into the Order of the Coif for his skills at avoiding double plays.
Context to show why this is weird: Adam Dunn weighs at least 285 pounds, probably more. He has four stolen bases in the last five years. He is 30 runs below average for his career in baserunning runs.
Just to emphasize: Adam Dunn has not hit into double plays this year. Not because of no opportunities. He just hasn't hit into them when he's had the chance. Adam Dunn.
Oh no! We're near the end!
Final fact: Adam Dunn has been hit by one pitch this year.
Final context: Adam Dunn has seen 2854 pitches this season. Just four players in baseball have seen more pitches than Dunn. Those four players are
Adam Dunn has four inches and eighty pounds on the biggest of those guys. He's substantially slower and less nimble than all of them. And he has been hit by one pitch. Ian Kinsler, a second baseman skilled in the art of avoiding sliding runners trying to murder him and the pivot, has been hit ten times. Adam Dunn, a born DH whose sack-prevention method in high school was to laugh while undersized linebackers struggled to yank him to the ground, has been hit once.
That's all. That's all the facts about Adam Dunn. It's time for conclusions.
Final explanation of Adam Dunn: What Adam Dunn does is absorb all your ideas about the Three True Outcomes and expand them to such absurd extremes as to constitute parody of the very concept. Dunn does not play your Three True Outcomes games. He is not content merely to strikeout and homer and walk. He also refuses to get hits even when the ball is put in play. He refuses to reach base by the hit-by-pitch, as only walks are truly a True Outcome. He refuses to engage in double-play chicanery.
Where Adam Dunn is concerned, we have gone past the Three True Outcomes. We have muddled through the thickets of the TTO. We have, finally, through patience and silent meditation and a strenous simultaneous attention to the Three True Outcomes and to their antithesis, the destruction of their ideal, we have arrived at concrete synthesis: the One True Outcome. Adam Dunn is The One True Outcome.