Adam Dunn and His New Digs

When Adam Dunn signed with the White Sox earlier this offseason for four years and $56 million dollars, I generally agreed with those like Dave Cameron who saw it as perhaps a slight overpayment, but reasonable given that Dunn will be moving to a park that favors his prodigious power and to a team and league that will finally allow him to spend most of his time at his natural position — designated hitter. I generally still agree with the assessment. However, there are some things worth watching as Dunn begins his in Chicago in relation to his shift in league, position, park, and his recent plate approach. What better to write about on Hall of Fame Announcement Day than a player who signed more than a month ago?

Dunn is a force on offense, and all decent projections will reflect that. There are a lot of “moving parts” involved in making those adjustments, however, and while more sophisticated projection systems have ways of dealing with many (though not all) of those factors, the more of those parts that are involved the more dicey things might seem. So rather than citing a projection, let’s go over some of these factors.

To begin with the most general points, Dunn is slated to be a full-time designated hitter for the first time in his career. Much has been made over Dunn’s defensive skills, or, more precisely, the lack thereof, so I won’t go over that ground again. Suffice it to say that the move to DH certainly won’t hurt his overall value. However, it is worth noting that while some players take to the DH just fine, there is evidence that most players have difficulty hitting off the “bench,” as it were, so there is a possibility that Dunn’s offensive production will be depressed a bit by the move. We don’t know how he will adjust as he’s never DHed full-time before (having spent his entire prior career in National League), so for now we’re better off assuming that he’s like “most players” in relation to how being a DH will effect his hitting. The second general point is related — the move to the American League. Perhaps Dunn will adjust well, perhaps he won’t. Pitching in the American League is generally considered to be stronger than in the National League, and that might be reason to temper our expectations for Dunn’s hitting going forward as well. Both of these are general points, and neither are enough to say that Dunn won’t be a very good hitter for the White Sox, but they are both points that have to be considered.

There are also specific curiosities with regard to Dunn’s hitting. Dunn has averaged about 30 batting runs above average per season on offense since 2008, which is obviously quite valuable. A closer look at the details reveals, however, a real shift. After posting a .394 wOBA in 2009, Dunn dropped back down to a .379 in 2010 (his lowest wOBA since 2006), which might be missed by simply looking his batting runs above average, which are adjusted to the lower 2010 run environment. Yes, offensive value has to be measured against the run environment in which is occurs, but in Dunn’s case, there are specific reasons why this seems to be happening which may indicate a change in his hitting abilities and/or style.

Dunn’s impressive ISO, home run/flyball rates, and Hit Tracker data all indicate that his monstrous home run power remains intact. It is his other two true outcomes, walks and strikeouts, that grab the attention. Dunn’s 11.9% 2010 walk rate is still above average, but for him, it was significantly lower than any other season in his career (his overall career walk rate is 16.3%). Not coincidentally, 2010 also featured easily the lowest on-base percentage of Dunn’s career at .356. Again, that isn’t bad, but for a guy who has never hit .270, walks are a big chunk of his offensive value.

One season has to be weighted against the rest, of course, but it is also true that walk rates generally stabilize more quickly than other rates. Moreover, while Dunn’s walks in the past have generally balanced out his strikeouts, his lower walk rate has not been accompanied by a lower K rate. On the contrary, he struck out at a higher rate in 2010 than in any other season of his career. Now, strikeouts are not the end of the world in themselves, but in this case it might indicate a change in Dunn’s approach. Indeed, the decline in plate discipline is well-illustrated by the fact that while Dunn’s strikeouts looking went down in 2010, his increase in swinging strikeouts (and thus overall strikeout rate) went up. Dunn (a generally patient hitter) swung at more pitches in 2010 than ever before. This was not, however, accompanied by an increase in contact, as his contact rate in 2010 was (wait for it…) the worst of his career (at least since 2002 when contact rates were tracked by the data sources for this site).

So Dunn has been more aggressive about swinging the bat than in the past, a relative shift from his past “take and rake” style, but he hasn’t made more contact. It seems to have hurt him through his lower on-base percentage and thus wOBA. In some respects, it might have helped him in his time with the Nationals, as his .267 batting average in 2009 and .260 in 2010 were some of the highest of his career, aided by career high averages of .324 and .329 on balls in play during those seasons. The increased number of non-home run hits did somewhat offset the lower walk rate in 2010, in particular.

This is where the issue of parks comes in. As has rightly been pointed out, Dunn’s new home park in Chicago should play right into his power game, as (according to the component factors at Stat Corner) the White Sox’ park boasts a 122 home run component factor for left-handed hitters as opposed to the Nationals’ 94. That should help Dunn. However, when looking at balls in play, note that Washington’s park also has more favorable park factors for left-handed hitters with regard to balls in play (singles, doubles, and triples), which may have factored into Dunn’s better BABIP performance during that time. Overall, Washington’s home park is slightly more favorable to left-handed batters than Chicago. This isn’t to say that Dunn’s still-heavily power-based game won’t be helped more overall by the move to the South Side, but there is reason to believe that his recent (relative) BABIP bonanza won’t continue.

I should say again that this isn’t a specific projection. Adam Dunn is a good hitter who should help the White Sox contend in 2010. But there are a number of factors to consider other than simply how favorable his new home will be to his number of dingers (or “dongers,” in Carson Cistulli’s inimitable jargon), from his own recent lower walk rates and likely decline on balls in play due to the park to more general issues with shifting to DHing full-time in the American League. I don’t know what will happen, but it will be interesting to observe.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

24 Responses to “Adam Dunn and His New Digs”

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  1. Rick says:

    His 2010 performance seems to indicate more of a changed approach than changed skills. If he’s swinging more often, he’s almost by definition swinging at more difficult pitchers for him to hit. More swings = more balls in play (of lower relative quality) and more strikeouts. And both of those come at the expense of some PA which would have otherwise ended in walks.

    So while we can observe the effects in multiple areas, I think the best explanation for his changed numbers in 2010 was a shift in his approach, one that he presumably could adjust again if he felt so inclined (or was instructed to). Every manager he’s had has wanted Dunn to be an “RBI guy” when that really isn’t his game. Let him go back to his take and rake days of yore and the production will rebound.

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

    think the best explanation for his changed numbers in 2010 was a shift in his approach

    Yeah, in a contract year … in a league where teams are slow to appreciate the walks. Seems reasonable. It’s interesting that Dunn’s 2 lowest seasons are his rookie year and 2010 (contract year). I could understand how he could be trying to “impress with his bat” in both situations.

    ———————————————–

    What would have been valuable would be to see historical data of NL players going to the AL and becoming DH’s. Rather than speculate that he could suffer from “hitting off the bench”. Let’s see what type of players have and haven’t … maybe there’s some indicators there.

    —————————————

    I don’t see how we, as a community, can preach SSS and then look at Dunn’s 2010 (a contract year no less), and use it to speculate risks (or even have minor concerns) that deviate from his career norms. His seasonal stats make San Diego weather appear erratic.

    I’m not complaining. The information is free. The articles are of good quality. I am appreciative. I’m just expressing a preference.

    Adam Dunn has lost between 1.5 and 3.0 WAR due to fielding each year of his career as an outfielder. No matter how much he slips either due to DH’ing or swinging a little more … it ain’t going to add up to -3 WAR. *grin*

    That is amazing to me, just by switching to DH, Dunn should gain 1 WAR. My guess is that Dunn finds himself busy in between at bats … watching film, hitting off a tee, tracking pitches, scouting pitchers, and playing some first base. If I were the hitting coach, I’d be talking to Dunn and seeing what types of things (baseball drills) he is interested in, and we’d set up some batting, some conditioning, etc for him to do during the game. My guess is Adam Dunn on the bench, going from what I know, is like a big 12yo with nothing to do.

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    • chuckb says:

      “What would have been valuable would be to see historical data of NL players going to the AL and becoming DH’s. Rather than speculate that he could suffer from “hitting off the bench”. Let’s see what type of players have and haven’t … maybe there’s some indicators there.”

      Sounds like a good topic for you to put together in the community blog.

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  3. cass says:

    For what it’s worth, the Nats hitting coach, Rick Eckstein, worked with Dunn on upping his aggressiveness at the plate before the 2010 season. His change in approach was definitely intentional.

    Examples:
    http://www.masnsports.com/the_goessling_game/2010/10/how-did-adam-dunns-changed-plate-approach-work.html

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  4. will says:

    definitely drafting him

    I’m also sold on his power on the south side

    https://ducksonthepondkid.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/shiny-new-toys-hitters/

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  5. jason461 says:

    So here’s a fun question… Dunn is just about a lock to get 400 HRs. He’s quite likely to get 500, and probably has an outside shot at 600. If he does get to 600, does he have a shot at the hall or will the voting population have changed enough to keep him out by then?

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    • walt526 says:

      He’s a 21st century version of Dave Kingman, albeit one who walks a bit more: very good HR hitter, but not quite historically great. Which is to say, he’d have to hit a LOT of homeruns (i.e., continue hitting 40+ HR well into his 40s) in order to make a career value case, which I really don’t see him doing.

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    • NEPP says:

      I dont think the current voters or future would consider Dunn a HoF…regardless of how many HRs he hits. He just doesn’t have that perception.

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  6. NEPP says:

    Dunn’s one of those ever rare guys who actually sees a big dip in his numbers with RISP…especially in batting average and slugging. He’s almost too patient at the plate at times..especially for a cleanup hitter.

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  7. DirK says:

    Dunn also played in an extreme hitters park in Cincy and he posted career lows in batting average. His HR’s did not really decline when moving to more of a pitcher’s park in Washington. I don’t see his new park making much of a difference at all. Dunn is what he is, a solid power guy, but little else.

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    • Brian says:

      The guy has a .380 career OBP. The guy is certainly more than just power.

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      • NEPP says:

        He basically walks and hits for power. Nothing else.

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      • A says:

        Walking and hitting home runs are detrimental to scoring runs, so yeah I agree he’s pretty useless.

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      • NEPP says:

        I wouldn’t call him useless. The two things he does do well (walk, hit for power) are very useful).

        ~is well aware of the sarcasm~

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      • Rick says:

        That’s like saying Ozzie Smith could play defense and nothing else. Well yeah, but he did it at a historically great level. Such it is with Dunn and his power and patience. Perhaps not quite to the Ozzie Smith extreme, but it’s the same basic argument.

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  8. diddier says:

    The man is a beast. Say what you will, he gets on base and bashes the ball out of the park, not matter where he plays. In Chicago, an easy 40 HR’s, 100+ RBI’s, BB and RUNS. Take it to the bank.

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  9. bstar says:

    Is what park he’s in going to really make that big of a difference? This isn’t Joe Mauer hitting balls five feet past the wall to the opposite field at the Homer Dome. When Dunn connects, its almost always a sure thing. He’s not a long-fly-ball-that-happened-to-go-out kinda guy. So I wouldnt expect his HR rate to be affected much by what park he hits in.

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  10. Paul says:

    Not sure I’d agree with the OP that pitching in the AL is stronger than the NL, certainly not SP anyway. I may have once been the case, but did you not notice that Greinke and Lee have moved to the NL this offseason? And Halladay the year before?

    Can’t see NL to AL being a negative factor for Dunn.

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    • NEPP says:

      It might affect him only from the standpoint of a good number of unfamiliar pitchers not better ones. Sometimes guys have issues with that. Sometimes it helps them too.

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  11. Dwight Schrute says:

    People bring up the move to the AL but he’s going to be playing half his games against AL Central teams and outside of Verlander, Liriano, and Scherzer I don’t see any quality starters there(not counting the White Sox of course since he won’t be facing them) so I don’t think it’s going to hurt him as much as some people think.

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    • ToddM says:

      Not to be nit-picky, but 72 out of 162 isn’t half.

      That said, considering how pitching-starved KC and CLE are, and how potentially shakey the back ends of DET and MIN’s staffs look, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see Dunn club 20+ homers in divisional games.

      I have no evidence to support this, but Dunn strikes me as the kind of guy that feasts on the average and below-average pitcher and struggles with the upper echelon. If that’s the case, look out…

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      • ToddM says:

        Oh, and yeah, I know everyone struggles with the best pitchers — that’s why they’re the best pitchers. I meant even more so than usual.

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    • ToddM says:

      Also, as a reference point, Jim Thome hit 14 homers in only ~175 plate appearances against AL Central teams last year.

      His OPS against the Central was around 1200. Sick stuff.

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  12. BillR says:

    I agree with bstar, park factor doesn’t mean too much when your HR’s travel as far as Dunn hits them. I don’t have the data but I doubt more than a small handful wouldn’t have gone out no matter the park.

    And as a Tribe fan I will agree Dunn will feast on the central pitching especially with Greinke going NL. I am guessing 42-45 HR, 1 huge season before a gradual decline due to age.

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