Adam Dunn Has Gone Fishing

Few baseball players do everything. Some can consistently field balls at spots their peers have trouble reaching. Some can beat out a slow chopper to short. Some display a keen batting eye that keeps pitchers honest. Some possess a preternatural ability to hit the ball where they ain’t. A few accomplish this by hitting the the ball so far that outfielders run out of room long before it lands. Only a small smattering of players do all these things. The ones who can do one or two of those things usually find themselves in a starting lineup, or at least play on a regular basis.

When it comes to Adam Dunn, the focus seems to be on what he can’t do rather than what he does well. Since his full-season debut at age 22 in 2002, Dunn has done two things at an elite level. He has kept pitchers honest by taking the pitches he can’t hit. If the pitcher does deliver a hittable pitch, Dunn tends to hit it far beyond the reach of fielders. From 2004 through 2008 Dunn hit at least 40 home runs, and fell only two short of that mark in 2009. Yet when it comes to mainstream evaluation, the focus is not on these strong points, but rather on his weaknesses. That is, his ability to make consistent contact and his poor performance in the outfield.

Dunn understands the criticism he receives, but given a comment he made in spring 2007, he also knows the value he provides with his approach. “I’m going to be Ichiro,” he said. “I’m going to have 216 hits, 177 of them singles, six homers and steal 77 bags.” He did later make some more serious comments about improving his contact skills, though not much came of it. His 70.4 percent contact rate from 2006 does remain the lowest of his career, but he hasn’t improved on it significantly in the past three and a third seasons. His rate consistently sits well below league average.

Even so, he had his two strengths to fall back on. From 2007 through 2009 Dunn hit 118 homers and 79 doubles, which have accounted for nearly 49 percent of his total hits. He has also drawn 339 walks which, while not quite as valuable as hits, are far, far more valuable than outs. Plenty of major leaguers have hit for a higher average than Dunn, but few have matched his other skills. This shows up in his wOBA, which hasn’t fallen below .383 since 2006, that .234 BA year. That mark sits at .386 this season, but the composition has changed. Something is quite different about Adam Dunn in 2010.

The aspect that stands out the most is Dunn’s OBP, just .371 this year. That mark usually comes across a bit higher, in the mid-.380s. Last year, on the power of a 17.4 percent walk rate, Dunn got it all the way up to .398. He also raised his batting average to .267, by the slimmest of margins the highest mark of his career. That batting average sits around the same mark this year, .271, but his walk rate has slipped to 12.7 percent. Dunn has never experienced a rate so low, not even during his short stint as a 21-year-old in 2001. It made me wonder whether this is a blip on the radar or a complete change for Dunn.

Seeking an explanation of some sort, I turned to his plate discipline data, which, as expected, yielded an oddity. While Dunn has established a reputation of not doing the pitcher any favors, this year it appears he has, swinging at 26.2 percent of pitches outside the zone. For the first time in his career he approaches the league average mark. From 2002 through 2009 he swung at just 17.5 percent of pitches outside the zone, always falling a good deal below the average. But this year he’s close. Closer than he’s ever been. These extra hacks at bad pitches also show up in his swinging strike rate, 12.7 percent, another career high.

Where have all these walks gone? It appears that two of Dunn’s teammates have compensated a bit. Ryan Zimmerman, scorcher of baseballs, has added over four percentage points to his walk rate from last year, which had added almost four percentage points from the previous year. Josh Willingham, also in the midst of a career year, has added more than five percentage points to his walk rate from last year, which, as with Zimmerman, was then a career high. I’m not sure if those two have to do with Dunn, but it is curious that those two are drawing far more walks while Dunn draws far fewer.

There might be a solution in this. For most of the season Jim Riggleman has penciled in a 3-4-5 of Zimmerman, Dunn, and Willingham. Those are his three best hitters, and since they go righty-lefty-righty it fits perfectly with baseball conventions. The problem does not lie in those three, but instead at the top of the Nats’ order. Nyjer Morgan, Christian Guzman, and Adam Kennedy have seen most of the time in the top two spots, and none of those three sports an OBP that screams leadoff hitter. That means fewer men on base for the heart of the order.

Might it be better for the Nats’ offense if Riggleman spared the convention and started condensing his better hitters closer to the top of the order? Lead off with either Guzman or Morgan, and then go right to Zimmerman, followed by Willingham and then Dunn, or Dunn and then Willingham if the right-lefty-righty combo is so important. That means not only more at-bats for the best hitters in the lineup, but also that they can hit with more men on base. Might Dunn get more hittable pitches if he has two .400+ on-base guys hitting in front of him? It seems at least worth a try.

Chances are that we’ll see this run its course without any tweaks. Two relatively weak hitters will continue to hit atop the order, creating more outs ahead of Zimmerman, Dunn, and Willingham. That gives them fewer opportunities to knock in runs. That’s convention, though, and it will take more than an article centering on a few data points to change that. Still, it seems like that might at least slightly boost the Nats’ production. As for Dunn, I’m not sure that a lineup change will help his newfound propensity to swing at pitches outside the zone. At this point, though, isn’t it worth a shot?

Beyond that parting question, I’d like to ask something of Nats fans. Dunn is seeing more pitches than ever outside the zone, 56.9 percent against league average of 52.6 percent and Dunn’s career average of 52.4 percent. At the same time he’s seeing more first-pitch strikes than ever, 57.8 percent. We’re dealing with just 237 PA, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions. Have you noticed pitchers attacking him in a deliberate manner? Is there a pattern for how pitchers work him that might throw off his game plan? This won’t show up in composite numbers, so I’m looking to Nats fans for a take on the question.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

26 Responses to “Adam Dunn Has Gone Fishing”

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  1. pm says:

    I’ve definitely noticed him swinging at more pitches. I think that might have something to do with the criticism of him holding onto the bat too long in critical situations so he overcompensates by swinging at more pitches. Plus, he is awful with men on base. He is 0-24 with RISP and 2 outs. His numbers with men on base are ridiculously awful.

    What amazes me about Dunn is his double total. It’s high even though he has had like 3-4 long singles that would have been doubles with an average runner.

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  2. Nate says:

    I don’t know if there’s a new book on Adam, but I assume pitchers are looking to get ahead by banking on the fact that the famously patient Dunn isn’t going to be hacking on the first pitch. Apart from that, I can tell you that not only is Dunn swinging at more pitches out of the zone, he’s swinging at really bad pitches out of the zone. Neck high fastballs, sliders in the dirt. Also, he definitely took some heat early in the season for watching a few called third strikes and now he “seems” (lacking any numbers to back this up) to be swinging at 3-2 pitches he used to lay off.

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  3. Neil says:

    “Two relatively weak hitters will continue to hit atop the order, creating more outs ahead of Zimmerman, Dunn, and Willingham. That gives them fewer opportunities to knock in runs.”

    I don’t think this logic works. If you move them to 2-3-4, you go from having, say, Morgan and Guzman hitting ahead of them to the pitcher and Morgan. And the Morgan-Guzman combo certainly reaches base more often than any combination of pitcher-Morgan/Guzman.

    You might create another RBI chance in the first inning, sure, what with fewer outs meaning that Dunn or Willingham get to bat with a man on rather than leading off the second inning, but the odd extra chance would be balanced out by fewer chances in the subsequent innings.

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    • BobLoblaw says:


      Also,”That means not only more at-bats for the best hitters in the lineup, but also that they can hit with more men on base.”

      …Don’t mean to nitpick but that’s simply not true.

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      • Marcus says:

        I don’t see how a 9-1-2 of out-out-out is better than a 9-1-2 of out-out-walk/walk/smash + one extra batter. Not creating outs is the object. You don’t want that inning to end. If Zimmerman + Dunn create a walk/HR with 2 outs in the 3rd inning as opposed to the beginning of the 4th inning, you create more opportunities for them to hit. They would decrease the frequency of outs created. It could mean the difference between a closer facing Guzman with 2 outs in the 9th and facing Zimmerman.

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      • BobLoblaw says:

        How does it mean there will be “more men on base” for those 3? It simply does not.

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      • Marcus says:

        Well, first off, you should have stated “that’s only partially true” instead of “that’s simply not true”. I was responding to the first part of the statement. And secondly, if they were to engage in this particular form of lineup construction, then they would be better off batting the pitcher 8th anyway, thus giving them about the same amount of runners on base in front of them (going with a 9-1-2 of Morgan/Guzman/Zimmerman or Dunn).

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    • Mike H says:

      They could go the Larussa route and bat the pitcher 8th.

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  4. Ben says:

    The “solution” posed above seems based on the hypothesis that Dunn will perform as a more disciplined hitter with men on base. Regardless of whether shifting the lineup is the best way to accomplish this, do the data support a change in approach with runners on? In other words, in his career, has Dunn drawn fewer walks with no men on base? This is even somewhat counter-intuitive, as a slugger’s prerogative is to “knock ’em in” when there are ducks on the pond and “find a way on” when the bags are empty. In either case, if the data do support a change in approach based on situation, has Dunn seen fewer opportunities with runners on in 2010 than at other points in his career?

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    • wbpalmer says:

      In looking at the 3 year data points for Dunn (2007-2009) it does appear that Dunn gets more walks with runners on base than not. Courtesy of ESPN here are the numbers:

      By Situation (1 = None on; 2 = Runners on; 3 = RISP; 4 = Bases Loaded; 5 = Leading off an inning; and RISP and 2 out)
      1. 853 63 219 50 1 63 63 158 8 264 .257 .378 .539 .917
      2. 732 198 187 29 1 55 248 181 8 242 .255 .403 .523 .926
      3. 419 153 107 14 0 29 187 126 6 138 .255 .425 .496 .921
      4. 36 43 13 0 0 5 47 12 1 9 .361 .500 .778 1.278
      5. 384 25 102 27 1 25 25 60 2 121 .266 .368 .536 .904
      6. 176 68 43 7 0 13 71 66 5 63 .244 .462 .506 .968

      He has walked 23 more times with runners on base than without in 121 less AB’s. That’s pretty substantial for a 3 year period. Also, look at the RISP numbers: only 32 less walks in half the AB’s as with the bases empty. This is definitely substantial.

      Based on this the question isn’t if the difference is substantial enough, but rather how does his improvement weigh against the average player’s improvement (if any) in these situations. My guess is it is worth getting Willingham and Zimmerman in front of Dunn. Of course sample size goes into in analysis but three years is a decent starting point.

      My view is this is most likely a blip on the radar and Dunn will be the same player he has always been at the end of the year as the sample size is too small to draw conclusions, but the player he has always been is more patient when runners are on in front of him meaning longer rallies and more offense so the proposed move is a good one either way.

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  5. Mike says:

    “Have you noticed pitchers attacking him in a deliberate manner? Is there a pattern for how pitchers work him that might throw off his game plan? This won’t show up in composite numbers, so I’m looking to Nats fans for a take on the question. ”

    Absolutely. In a 3-4-5 of Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham, Dunn is the weakest link – the one least likely to hurt you with his bat. Opposing teams have caught onto this and are pitching them accordingly.

    Zimmerman – While he’s not a free swinger in the Cristian Guzman mold, he certainly doesn’t go up there looking for a walk, either. Give him something to hit and chances are that he’ll swing at it. It’s been pretty obvious lately that they’re often pitching around him to get to Dunn.

    Dunn – He’s definately swinging at more pitches lately than in the past. The results have been mixed: compared to his career #’s, higher average and more doubles on the positive side. On the negative side, fewer walks and fewer HR. I think that pitchers (or advance scouts) have recognized his new aggressiveness at the plate and are pitching to him based on that.

    Willingham – He leads the league (or close to it) in walks and OBP. Part of the reason behind that is that he’s got no protection behind him in the lineup. So I don’t think the theory that Dunn would get more hittable pitches hitting behind both Zimmerman and Willingham would work, as it’s not working for Willingham right now.

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    • josh01632 says:

      From what I hear, Dunn is a horrible player in April and his monthly stats show him increasing his BA and SLG about .050 and .100 from April to May. His homers and doubles look right in line with what we saw 2007-2009. Houston and Cincy were awful series for Dunn and he looks completely lost at the moment…

      In terms of how pitchers work him, pitchers definitely have been walking Zimm (7 BB in 13 PA against Houston) to get to Dunn. From my anecdotal evidence I would say that Dunn is swinging over a lot of low and inside stuff.

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  6. Joe says:

    Dunn was only worth 1.2 wins last season? Doesn’t that seem a little low? That is a below-average player…

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    • Nate says:

      It’s because his atrocious defense almost negates his hitting.

      In 2009:

      Adjusted Runs Above Avg: 35.5

      Fielding Runs Above Avg: -37.1

      Dunn was made to be a DH. Why he’s never played in the AL is beyond me.

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  7. Joe says:

    I figured. What would his WAR have been had he posted the same numbers while DH’ing?

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    • Will says:

      Simply remove the -37.1 defensive runs and the -8.8 positional adjustment, and add (roughly) -17 for the DH positional adjustment.

      In total, he’d go from being worth 11.8 RAR (1.2 WAR) to 40.8 RAR (4.1 WAR).

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  8. dcs says:

    I think this analysis is much ado about nothing. His current OBA and SLG are close enough to his career numbers.

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  9. Scott says:

    Nobody is noting his incredible reverse platoon split this year in regards to strikeouts. He is striking out 24.5% of the time vs LHP (career 34.5%) and 37% vs. RHP (career 31.7%). Those are easily career years (career low vs LHP, career high vs RHP).

    Subjectively, I feel like has been swinging and missing a ton on low-inside curveballs from right handers. I haven’t been able to watch full games as frequently this year, so I’m dealing with a small sample, but in the few I have seen it’s seemed brutal (and his weighted curveball stats back up this view).

    No clue why he’s putting the ball in play so frequently vs. LHP though.

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    • Scott says:

      Food for thought – maybe he’s just seenig better pitching. I noticed that the average velocity for pitches he sees at least 5% of the time is a career high in EVERY type (Fastball/Slider/Curve/Change).

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      • Neil says:

        That’s a very interesting point. I was going to say that by my eye, Dunn’s bat speed has lost half a tick off what it was last year. I haven’t seen him turn on nearly as many pitches as I feel he did last year.

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  10. Ryan says:

    Im sick of hearing about how bad dunn is and how below average he is. He plays major league baseball for a reason people. He hits 40 home runs, gets a hundred walks and scores a hundred times. He has what 4 errors this year? geez he sucks doesnt he.

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  11. jirish says:

    Dunn spent part of last year in left field for the Nats. Is he still that bad defensively now that they have made him a permanent 1st baseman? Are 2010 defensive numbers worse than 2009 numbers?

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  12. yajeflow says:

    mike said:
    “Absolutely. In a 3-4-5 of Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham, Dunn is the weakest link – the one least likely to hurt you with his bat. Opposing teams have caught onto this and are pitching them accordingly.”


    okay. where to start? how about this season. dunn is 8th in the NL in OPS (7th in OPS+). dunn is 4th in runs created. dunn is 6th in adjusted batting runs. he is ahead of willingham and zimmerman in each of these key batting stats. you also might’ve noted that he is 3rd in the league in home runs.

    how about career? last season was the first since 2003 that he did not lead his team in home runs, runs batted in, and walks. his missed it by one RBI. in 2003, he only played 116 games and still led cincy in homers, by the way.

    take a look at the data. dunn is the biggest thumper in baseball, period. he hits BOMBS where others may only hit home runs. i truly believe that as he slows down after age 33, the huge homers will drop off and then merely only clear the fence. but they will still be home runs.

    the kid is 30 years old, and he has 332 home runs in the bank. take a look at the current leaders in baseball, and pay attention to AGE. he is roughly four years ahead of his contempories. imagine where he will be in four years.

    dunn is currently 90th in all-time home runs. he is 30 years old, folks. there has not been a guy like him since harmon killebrew and reggie jackson. huge power, weak batting average, and draw 100+ walks. he is 136th all-time in drawing walks.

    he is a 133 OPS+ guy. zimmerman is a 118. oh, i know…maybe they see a weakness in his DEFENSE, so they are pitching to him rather than face the better fielding zimmerman and willingham. jeesh.

    like it or not, dunn will be in cooperstown in 2027. bill james’ ‘favorite toy’ has him at about a 89% of reaching 500 homers. every player untainted by drugs and is eligible for the hall of fame (except for fred mcgriff, who will get in fairly soon) with more than 450 home runs is in cooperstown.

    in fact, 23 of 25 players with moe than 415 homers are in the hall. kingman and mcgriff are the only ones not in. if 450 is the ‘lock’, then dunn is 118 homers away. start the countdown…

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  13. DanaT says:

    117 away now. Well said.

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  14. Russ says:

    This is going to be a very bad year for the Dunn haters.

    As of July 10, his UZR/150 as a first baseman is now -1.1. So, he’s supposedly average. Now, all the “he’s a DH” people have to eat their words. Or they have to recant on the accuracy of UZR.

    As for his “fishing” __his O-swing% is now up to 28.6% from 19.4% in ’09 and 17.8% career__ it looks like he’s finally doing what everybody has begged him to do __expand his strike zone so he can hit more and walk less.

    If this is true, and it’s probably too soon to be sure, it’s a spectacular success. Sure, he’s been red hot lately. But, with 26 doubles, two triples and 22 homers, he’s on pace for 93 extra base hits! Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron never had 89 XBH. DiMaggio did it once. Even Barry Bonds only did it once! (107 in ’01.)

    The reason Dunn’s season is being overlooked is because his RBI are at his normal pace __108. That’s because __though he normally hits slightly better with men on base than with nobody on, and his Leverage Index numbers are slightly better in the clutch than other situations__ he’s hit a weirdly high number of solo homers this year and has hit somewhat worse with men on base.

    Perhaps the career-best slugging average, the astronomical leap in XBH (previous highs of 80, 77, 70) and N.L. leading total bases will come down.

    But what if they don’t? Or if they just come down a little? Then he’ll probably start getting a normal # of RBI for such high production.

    If so, he may evolve in his 30’s into a hitter more like Ryan Howard __a huge RBI man.

    It’s amusing to this Nats fan to think that the team is having an internal debate among its stat mavens about his contract value. Do they want to “risk” a three-year deal for ages 31-32-33. What they better worry about “risking” is that he will have his three best years at 31-32-33 like Frank Howard (44-48-44 HR). Also, see huge LH-hitting smooth-swinging 1st basemen like Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell who were best at 31-to-33. McCovey won his only three slugging titles (and theoretical OPS titles) at those ages. As for players with comparable stats at 30 __Killebrew, Reggie J, Canseco__ they had huge years up to 33 and in Reggie’s case beyond.

    The knocks on Dunn have always been that he didn’t have a defensive position at which he was adequate and that he walked “too much” and didn’t drive in enough runs. What if, for a few years, he’s “solved” both problems?

    It would be like the Nats, I’m afraid, to let somebody else get a monster free agent for 3-4 years for ~$15-miilion/yr just as he’s about to turn into an actual $20M player.

    Could be wrong. Maybe UZR is nuts. Maybe he’ll stop hitting. But he’s been robbed of FOUR home runs this year that hit within inches of the top of the wall, including one by a foot last night that prevented him from hitting three homer runs in a game twice within three days. “Normalized” for any kind of common sense HR “luck” this year, he’d have 25-26, be in the All-Star game and maybe win the HR-hitting farce __I mean contest.

    Seems like a good guy. Says his favorite movie is “The Big Lebowski.” Right now, I’d say, “The Dude abides.”

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