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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.