January 14, 2015
The Depths, and Depth, of Adam Dunn's Career
When Adam Dunn joined the White Sox he brought huge expectations. He’d just come off seven consecutive seasons with at least 38 homers, he was the prototype darling of the Pre-Zobrist Stathead Era, and, maybe most importantly, he had just signed a four-year, $56 million contract. Like Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, with big money comes big expectations—I may be a little off on that quote, having been more baseball cards than comics as a kid, but you get the point.
That 2011 season was anything but Dunn living up to expectations. It was his first year in a big media market—it just so happened to coincide with my first full season covering baseball—and everyone was asking him about his struggles. Of course, that meant I had to do the same, and in doing so, Dunn’s response to a lazy question would teach me a lot about being a reporter.
But before Dunn schooled me in my vocation, he schooled many baseball talking heads with his play. Dunn surely never intended it to be this way, but he became the face of a revolution—or, at least, a revelation. During his career, the balance of power shifted from the front third of a slash line to back part, while high strikeout totals were forgiven from otherwise productive hitters.
The big Texan wasn’t embraced by everyone, and some would always tsk disapprovingly at those gaudy strikeout totals and low averages. But Dunn came along at the right time, just in time to be championed by a certain type of analyst, and just in time to fit in with a league that was shifting toward his style of offense. When Dunn made his major-league debut in 2001, the big-league batting average was .264 and the strikeout rate was 17.3 percent. He retires with the league sitting at rates of .251 and 20.4 percent.
Those numbers were trending in that direction well before Dunn arrived, but the former Reds/Diamondbacks/Nationals/White Sox/A’s slugger became the go-to example of a player whose batting average and whiff totals were at the bottom of the league, but who still had immense value at the plate. He wasn’t the first three-true outcomes player, but he was one of the first for a generation of newfangled-stat lovers who came of age during sabermetrics’ boomlet.
For 14 seasons, Dunn had only one way to provide value, with his bat. He started off as a bad left fielder, moved on to being a slightly passable first baseman, and finally ended up as a decent designated hitter. In his career, Dunn hit just .237 and struck out 28.6 percent of the time (roughly 50 percent more than the league average during that span). But he had the 52nd best slugging percentage and the 53rd best OBP among all hitters during that time, good for a .294 TAv. His 16 percent career walk rate is 10th highest since 1960 (min. 5,000 PA), behind a list of former MVPs, current or future Hall of Famers, and Mickey Tettleton. From 2004, he had a run in which he homered 46 times, then exactly 40 in four straight seasons, then 38 in the each of the next two; then, in December 2010, heading into his age-31 season, Dunn signed that big contract and headed to Chicago.
He ended the 2011 season with an abysmal .159 batting average, but with 496 plate appearances, he fell six short of qualifying and avoided beating out Rob Deer’s—another TTO darling who was just a decade or so before his time—.179 mark for lowest batting average by a qualifier. Interim manager Don Cooper sat him for the final two days of the season, saving him from the “record”—though, arguably, the bigger favor would have been letting him play, instead of showing deference to a statistical measure that never liked Dunn anyway.
Of course, the stats that did like Dunn betrayed him that year, too. He slugged a meager .277 (this from a career .490 slugger who had posted a .536 mark just the year before) and hit just 11 home runs, eight fewer than his previous career-low, set in a 66-game rookie season. He struck out in a career-worst 36 percent of his plate appearances, posted his only sub-.320 OBP season, and managed just six hits (and one extra-base hit) against southpaws in 115 plate appearances.
There were no positives, no spin. By every measure Dunn’s 2011 was an all-out disaster, truly a historically bad season. It was the third-worst slugging percentage ever for DH (minimum 250 PA), and the worst since 1987. Raise the minimum to 400 plate appearances and it’s the worst OPS ever for DH, and the worst OPS+. Many tried to figure out what was happening during the season. Was he suffering a drop because, after years of playing the field, he had suddenly moved to the designated hitter’s role? Perhaps he returned too soon from the appendectomy he underwent in early April? Was he just washed up? Maybe he was just one of those odd Dale Murphy-like cases, a star whose numbers just fell off a cliff from one season to the next rather than a slow decline over a period of time. Was a benching necessary? Or maybe a chat with a psychologist?
Nearly everything was suggested and nearly everything was tried—and, yes, if you didn’t click the link, he did spent time with the team psychologist. As Dunn said, that works for certain people, but he wasn’t sure if it would work for him. It didn’t.
His struggles were a big story, not just in Chicago, but nationally. The Onion even got a dig in. It was my first season covering baseball for an entire season and the way Dunn’s story was covered made for an interesting lesson to me. If you were on the beat every day, covering a pretty bad team, sometimes you had to find different angles to cover the same topic. So you talked to Dunn’s former teammates and managers to get their thoughts on his slump. You asked his current manager what he thought about the boos (or the cheers when he got beaned) or got the thoughts of another regularly-booed player across town.
And of course you ask the actual player what it’s like to get booed. It’s never a fun question, for either party, but it needs to be asked. Dunn almost never lost his patience with these questions and all the others that were posed during that season. One of the few times he did—although it would probably be a stretch to say he lost his patience—is when Dunn taught me a personal lesson.
Dunn had spent the week answering questions about the boos. They had already been written about elsewhere, but unfortunately for me my editor at the time wanted a story on them, too. Naturally, he needed me to pose the question to Dunn once again, which I agreed to do.
I approached Dunn alone and quickly got to the point, not getting very creative with my question or even really altering the angle to try and get a unique answer or make it seem like I wasn’t just rehashing the same subject yet again. Dunn, clearly annoyed, gave a short, non-answer. I pressed a little and he continued to give me very little, being sure to mention that he’d dealt with these questions numerous times, probably too many times, in the past few days. I realized this was going nowhere, turned off my recorder and gave some half apology, half explanation of how I was just doing my job. Dunn responded very calmly and pointed out that I needed to do it better, and that I should probably read the papers before I start asking questions.
To be fair to me, it didn’t matter that other publications had the story; my editor asked, so it was my job to get it done. And to be fair to Dunn, he was 100 percent right. I needed to be better prepared. I needed to dig deeper—not just ask if the boos bothered him, but rather try and find a more compelling angle to the story.
But a relaxed Dunn delivering a quick one-liner to shoo away a reporter asking a poor question was the worst you’d see from him. He could be short at times, especially that season, and you could tell when he was irritated with a question by a glance he’d shoot or the exasperated way in which he’d answer. But it was nothing unexpected considering the circumstances. He never truly lost his temper during a season that easily would have justified it, at least not that anyone saw.
Maybe a month after I had skulked away from Dunn in shame, I listened in while he chatted with a group of reporters. He talked about how he stayed grounded during such a rough time. Baseball is supposed to be fun, but how could it be fun struggling like Dunn had? He talked about bringing his kids to the ballpark with him and, instead of taking extra batting practice, disconnecting from the technical aspects and surrounding himself with the things that really mattered in life.
Of course, that didn’t fix things either. There was no way to “fix” what was happening. It just turned out to be one of those years. Early the next year, Dunn talked about how it was hard to get away from questions about his awful season even when he went back home to Texas.
”As soon as I get back to the club and play golf, everyone was like, ‘What happened? What happened?’” Dunn recalls. “That’s all people would talk about. I was like, ‘The heck with this. I’m going back to the ranch.’”
Dunn never could fully put into words what happened that season, only pointing to not ever really feeling comfortable mechanically with his hands. And he never did blame anyone but himself. He bounced back in 2012 with an All-Star campaign, though he struggled in the second half as the White Sox faded from playoff contention with a rough September. And while he never suffered through another year nearly as bad as his first with the South Siders—his lone sub-100 OPS+ season in a 14-year career—he didn’t return to his pre-White Sox form either. His 110 OPS+ over his final three seasons marks the worst three-year stretch of his career that doesn’t include his 2011 disaster.
Dunn was never a great bat during his time with the White Sox (and couple-month stint in Oakland), but for a decade prior to arriving in the Junior Circuit, he was special at the plate. But it’s not his performance on the field that I’ll take with me (although there are some moonshots over Sheffield Avenue that he hit as Red that are permanently etched in my brain).
I’ll remember him smiling as one of his kids said one of those goofy things that only kids say. I’ll remember how the former quarterback who chose baseball over a shot to play under center argued about college football with teammates and reporters. I’ll remember how we once chatted about what made for truly great chili, and I’ll remember how the Texas native roundly mocked what Cincinnati tried to pass off as said fare. And, of course, I’ll remember the guy who was going through the worst professional stretch of his life, and the angriest he got was to dryly tell a rookie reporter to “read the paper.” For some, he may have been the face of a baseball movement, but to me he put a face on the human side of baseball.