Adam Dunn and the DH

Joe Pawl had an excellent piece on Adam Dunn’s continued slump earlier this week, discussing how Dunn’s slump has cost the White Sox a few wins off its record and projection so far this year. His article got me thinking: What exactly is wrong with Dunn this year? Dunn has normally been a model of offensive consistency, hitting at least 38 home runs each of the past seven years — but this year, his power has disappeared, he’s striking out at a higher rate and his balls in play aren’t falling for hits. What gives?

Since it’s so early in the season, it’s easy to say that this is just a slump and Dunn eventually will break out of it. He still only has 200 plate appearances this season — far from the 550 plate appearances needed before power rates stabilize — and as Jesse Wolfersberger talked about a month ago, Dunn had an early season appendectomy that likely threw off his start to the year. The larger sample of success trumps the smaller sample of struggles.

But as the sample gets larger, I can’t help but ask myself: What if that’s not the case? Are there reasons to think this struggle could be more than just a slump?

I think there is, based on two main reasons. But you can decide for yourself.

Reason #1 – Pitch Selection

Going into this year, Dunn always feasted on fastballs. That was the pitch he swung and missed on the least (19%), and pitch type values (2.1 wFB/C) rated him as one of the top 15 best fastball hitters in the majors. Changeups were his kryptonite — he swung and missed on them at a high rate (40+%) and they rated as the pitch he performed the worst against.

This season, though, things are all weird: Pitchers are throwing Dunn more fastballs (68% vs. 54%) and he can’t get around on them (-0.7 wFB/C). American League pitchers are also pitching him differently, using sliders as their main out-pitch, and Dunn’s strikeout rate has spiked to 40%.

Are pitchers throwing him more fastballs because he’s struggling, or is there some reason to believe Dunn can’t hit an American League fastball? I find that hard to believe, but his sudden struggles against the pitch are pretty scary.

Reason #2 – The DH

After speaking out for years against becoming a designated hitter, Adam Dunn caved to the inevitable this offseason and accepted his contract with the White Sox under the assumption that he’d serve mainly as a DH. So not only is Dunn changing leagues and being pitched to differently, but this is his first time he’s working primarily as a DH.

As a Rays fan, I’m especially attuned to the difficulties in asking players to serve in that role. When the Rays signed Pat Burrell before the 2008 season, he’d just come off a 33 homer season and hadn’t posted an ISO below .220 in more than four years. Burrell was turning 32 years old (Dunn is 31), was switching leagues and was asked to DH for the first time in his career. He promptly went out and turned into a giant stinker; his strikeout rate spiked while his power dropped (.146 ISO, HR/FB rate halved), he mysteriously lost his ability to hit a fastball, and his results didn’t improve until he was released from the Rays midway through 2009 season and returned to the National League.

Is it just me, or are there striking similarities between Burrell and Dunn? Obviously, just because one player can’t adjust to the DH doesn’t necessarily mean that another will, but it’s worth remembering that being a DH is difficult. David Ortiz spelled this out for us earlier this year, defending Jorge Posada’s struggles with the immortal words, “…. dude, DHing sucks.” The stats back him up:

“Players also lose effectiveness when being used as a designated hitter; the DH penalty is about half that of the PH penalty. This does vary significantly from player to player – some players hit as well as a DH as they do otherwise, while other perform as badly as they would as pinch hitters.” (The Book, by Tom Tango and Mitchel Lichtman)

Some players can adjust to being a DH, while others struggle with it. And right now, for whatever reason, Adam Dunn is struggling. Will he go the way of Pat Burrell, or will he make his adjustments and improve this season? Only time will tell, but if I were a White Sox fan, I’d start to get a little nervous.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

31 Responses to “Adam Dunn and the DH”

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  1. MikeS says:

    It’s not just an AL fastball he can’t hit. In 3 games against the Dodgers he had 15PA, 1 single, 4BB, 8K. It’s a small sample size, but it’s also actually worse than his numbers against the AL.

    Also, vs lefties? 000/174/000 in 46 PA with 17K and 7BB. That’s not a misprint. Oh fer 2011. He does not have a hit against a lefty while a memeber of the Chicago White Sox. If not for the walks he would literally be an automatic out. Because of that his odds of seeing a righty on the mound from the seventh inning on in a close game are about the same as the Pirates winning the World Series. Career vs lefties he hits 227/347/447.

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  2. David says:

    Trash me if you will, but his -3 UZR in 2010 was an accurate representation of his improvement at 1B. He’s really not all that bad when he plays full time at 1B. Getting a chance to see him play everyday, he rarely misses anything near him, and his only real problems came with scooping of throws, something that could be worked on with more practice.

    I wonder if the White Sox have given any thought to switching him and Konerko in the 1B/DH roles and see how things work out?

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    • James says:

      I think they should definitely work him in at 1B or LF, where he can’t be any worse than Pierre.

      As a White Sox fan, I was nervous when I read that the White Sox were interested in him at the trade deadline last year…. I just hope that Reinsdorf pulls the plug on Ken Williams sooner rather than later.

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    • jorgath says:

      No trash. As a Nats fan, I tell you that his problem defensively is a) scooping throws, as you said and b) range. He’s good at fielding the position as long as you aren’t expecting him to dive or move more than 10 feet. He’s a decent 1B if you just make sure you have super-range at 2B and serious accuracy on the SS and 3B arms.

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  3. P. Hertz says:

    Could it be the pressure of playing in a town and for a team that puts a premium on winning? He’s never played for a winning team or it appears, one that ever cared about winning. He’s posted decent numbers on lousy teams. I suspect that since winning wasn’t an issue he was free of that pressure and “played” better. Now that he’s “all in” with the White Sox, Mr. Daily Pressure is exerting its unbending force on him. Add in all the other problems he’s had so far and failure certainly is an option.

    Okay…this is all “seat of the pants” speculation but I live in Chicago and it’s hell on a player on a losing team. My personal feeling is he’s always been vastly over-rated and now that he’s on a team that’s used to winning it’s showing.

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    • howie says:

      dont think its pressure, konkero floyd danks, buhlre get most of the limelight. hes just a supporting cast member w. 1-3 ok years left. see jason bay, pat burrell

      harold reynolds was talkingbout the transition and said its not an easy one to adjust becuz ur in the dugout all day thinking.

      players are declining a lot faster, hanley HR output down 4 years in a row. you really have to be a freak of nature and be on p90x. guys like corey hart dont get longterm contracts because they know he wont last 3 years tops.

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    • lex logan says:

      No pressure to win in Cincinnati? Every year the Reds expected to compete for the title, and the string of losing seasons was galling. This isn’t Pittsburgh, for Pete’s sake.

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  4. Eminor3rd says:

    FWIW, I’ve been watching him all year, and it looks like righties are eating him up on a ton of tailing 2 seamers that start over the middle and break to the edge. Lefties seems to be doing somehting similar with a slier, but also pounding him up and in.

    He looks horrible, he’s swinging and missing at everything.

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  5. Arthur Xavier Corvelay says:

    You have to consider Dunn’s age as a factor as well. Dunn will be 32 in November. His 10 most similars are: Rob Deer (last great year at 32, only broke 100 games once after); Daryl Strawberry (last full at 29, albeit w/ other issues); Pat Burrell; Richie Sexson (retired at 33); Troy Glaus (retired at 33); Ralph Kiner (retired at 32); Jeremy Burnitz (productive into mid-30’s); Danny Tartabull (last real season at 33 then played 3 games at 34 and retired),Greg Vaughn (productive until 35); Hank Sauer (had two of his best years at 35 and 37.and played until 42). Quite a few of these players also had great seasons at 30 and were finished playing within a couple of years. Dunn is also far heavier than any of them, which probably doesn’t help his case either. Although over the last 15 years there have been many anomalous big years from players even in their late 30’s, now that the game is cleaned up a bit 32 may have to be considered ‘pretty old’ again.

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    • fredsbank says:

      why oh why could darryl not lay off the smack, that guy was an outstanding talent

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  6. Arthur Xavier Corvelay says:

    Lol my bad it just occurs to me that a large part of the reason that the reason they are most similar careers is that Dunn is only 30 and they didn’t play much past that, and most similar through 30 (Canseco, Colavito, Killebrew, Sosa, Jackson, Strawberry, Kiner, Thome, Bonds, Powell) was the better list to use, which obviously has some much more productive careers on it. But regardless it is a list of a number of recent players who fell off a cliff right around Dunn’s age. And honestly doesn’t Dunn remind you much more of Richie Sexson than Reggie Jackson.

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  7. chisoxfan says:

    Is Dunn really done? Will he be out of baseball before the 2013 season or is it just a slump and we should see a decent (.350-ish) wOBA from here on out?

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  8. jpg says:

    Hey Steve, just for the record, I said the same thing in the comments of joe pawl’s piece about the Dunn/Burrell comp. :-)

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    • Haha, then well said! Great minds think alike and all that jazz.

      I definitely think the comp fits – they’re both incredibly similar players in their skillsets and build (well, Dunn’s huge, but you get the idea). Hopefully Dunn heats up though…I need him on one of my fantasy squads.

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  9. Done-ky says:

    Well, he got his contract, and now he’s Dunn, put a fork in him… at some point pride may set in and he will get a little back.. as Reggie Jackson once said so well, “Once a man and twice a boy.”

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  10. Drew says:

    Early on, I traded a really good SP for Dunn, thinking it was kind of a steal, and that he would hit like 45+ homers playing in Chicago. I won’t say who I gave up, because it’s embarrassing.

    Now, I’m getting offers like the also struggling Uggla for Dunn, straight up.

    I won’t necessarily take that particular deal, mainly because I have Kinsler at 2B, but I’m getting to the point where I really just want to dump the guy somehow.

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  11. Yirmiyahu says:

    If 6 more of his flyballs had cleared the fence (rather than land for outs), his HR/FB% rate would be 21.2% (just under his career avg), and his batting line would be .215/.357/.465/.822. That would also bring his power (as measured by TB/H) right back to his career average.

    Has he been horribly unlucky when it comes to warning track flyouts?

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    • lex logan says:

      Having watched Dunn for several years at Cincy, if he’s landing anywhere close to the warning track, that’s a massive drop in power. An Adam Dunn home run has almost always been a no-doubter.

      Sounds like the appendectomy may be to blame, but Dunn’s skill set has always been classic “old player’s skills” (walks and power) which would predict an early end to his career.

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    • joshcohen says:

      interesting question. his hr/fb rate sticks out like a sore thumb.

      looking at hittracker, for the last five years roughly 20-25% of his yearly HR are classified as “lucky” or “just enough”. this year, that number is down. it’s certainly possible that he hasn’t been as lucky in years past when it comes to warning track power, but given the wFB number and anecdotal reports re: FB outs, i’d guess that the number of robbed HR is way short of 6.

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  12. Mork says:

    Burrell was released midway through the 2010 season, not 2009.

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  13. JPR says:

    What do you know about Adam Dunn? Do you know he doesn’t care about baseball?

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  14. The Wizard says:

    Re: 68% fastballs this year

    Does fangraphs add any different fastball types to arrive at that number? I use the texasleaguers pitch-f/x database (link on my username) and can’t see it. Thanks.

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  15. Steve from Rockford says:

    Interesting article. I think its a bit alarmist. Frank Thomas was on the radio in Chicago and said that it was difficult for him to transition. This is interesting, because it seemed like his transition was very easy for him to make.

    I think Dunn will be fine and this is a slump. He is seeing lots of pitchers for the first time, is playing in a much more stressful environment (the Chicago sports media is relentless) and had an appendectomy on top of it.

    I think he starts picking it up soon if the Sox continue to play well. It looks like they are really starting to click so the pressure will be off. Furthermore, the White Sox haven’t had many games at home. The Sox are done with the 15 game road trips and US Cellular is a bandbox.

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  16. pft says:

    2nd article in a week on Adam Dunn and no mention of his struggles against LHP’ers. Amazing.

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  17. Michael Bourne says:

    VMart sheds a tear and plays a tiny violin for struggling DH players like ’11 Dunn (more like Done) and ’10 Lind

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  18. AJS says:

    Adam Lind is another player who really struggled with the transition to DH, and seems to have righted himself while playing 1B this season.

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  19. Bpdelia says:

    Dhing sucks dude might truly,be the answer here. I expect an uptick he does have a classic old player skillset.still je had an elite player toolbox.

    Rob deer and sexson arent fair comps in my mind and dunns discipkine sets him a step up from burrell.

    Its a combo of new league, new pitchers, appendectomy and dhing.

    I dont see this continuing much longer

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