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.