Adam Dunn: Worst Season For A Good Player Ever?

Adam Dunn is having a terrible season, and now, even the White Sox are giving up on waiting for him to regress back to the mean – he’s been told that he’ll spend the rest of the year as a part-time player. With limited opportunities to dig an even larger hole, it seems likely that Dunn will end the year with a line not too far from his current one – a .163/.289/.290 mark that adds up to a dreadful .268 wOBA. For a DH, that kind of anti-production is nearly unheard of.

I wanted to put Dunn’s season in context, though, so I thought I’d look through history and see just how often some useful Major League player has just fallen down on the job. We’ve all seen guys fall off the cliff before, so I figured this probably wasn’t all that unusual historically. Using the nifty little “split season” filter on the leaderboards here on FanGraphs, you can choose to see the best and worst individual seasons at different types of things over a specified time period, so I filtered by the worst seasons of the last 50 years.

At -2.5 WAR, Dunn checks in tied for ninth on the list in terms of net negative performance over a full season. Ninth in 50 years doesn’t sound so bad, after all, and would confirm my initial suspicion that this kind of thing isn’t all that uncommon. But when you start to look at the context of the guys ahead of him, the story begins to change.

Jerry Royster had the worst mark on the list, in 1977, putting up an awful -3.4 WAR. But he wasn’t much of an established player – it was only his second full year in the big leagues – and the Braves used him as a utility infielder covering second base, shortstop, and third base. Royster’s profile is not the kind of you’d expect a lot of offense from. In addition, a large part of Royster’s negative WAR comes from Total Zone’s view of his defense, which it hated at all three positions he played. Given that defense is harder to quantify than offense (that is especially true for data from 1977), there’s a pretty decent margin of error around that -3.4 number, and again, it’s not like Royster was an established veteran that the Braves were heavily relying on.

We see that same pattern – young, inexperienced, and judged harshly by defensive metrics – with many of the guys ahead of Dunn on the list. Cristian Guzman‘s 1999 season (-3.1 WAR) was his rookie year, and while he showed some physical tools, he clearly just wasn’t big league ready quite yet. Jose Guillen was a prematurely rushed 21-year-old in 1997 when he posted a -2.8 WAR that was also strongly reliant on a disastrous defensive rating. Mike Caruso‘s -2.7 WAR in 1999 came in his second year in the big leagues, but he was just 22 years old and went on to show that he was never really a big league player to begin with. Same deal with Pat Rockett, a 23-year-old who probably should have never made the show. Rounding out the green thumbs, David McCarty also racked up -2.9 WAR in his rookie season of 1993.

Among the guys ahead of (or tied with) Dunn on the futility top 10, eliminating the inexperienced young guys leaves us with just three names – Neifi Perez, George Wright, and Dan Meyer. Of course, those guys aren’t really good comps for Dunn either.

Perez was 29 when he had his epically awful season, and had been in the Majors for six years at that point, but he’d never really been any good. He was a defensive specialist whose bat was so bad that it canceled out all of the glove’s value. His 2002 stands out as spectacularly bad because his previously positive defensive numbers took a turn for the worse at the same time that his offense tanked, so he ended up with one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball history while also being judged a poor defender at shortstop. Again, though, you could argue that the Royals should have known what they were getting with Perez, and they’d probably argue that he was better than UZR suggests with the glove, so maybe his season isn’t quite as epically horrible as it might look on the surface. Or, at least, compared to what you could have reasonably expected from Neifi Perez, anyway.

That leaves a pair of outfielders, Wright and Meyer. Meyer, though, offers something of a blend between the “inexperienced young guy” camp and the “what were you expecting?” camp. Nineteen-seventy eight was his fourth big league season, but he was only 25 and playing for an expansion team, so his job in the big leagues was more out of necessity than because he had earned it with strong play. He was a good contact hitter, but his lack of walks and moderate power meant that he was more of a fungible asset than anything overly valuable. He managed to stick around for a while and rack up 4,000 major league at-bats, but his career WAR of -3.5 shows that Meyer was never really much of a big leaguer.

Finally, that brings us to George Wright, an outfielder who had one of the most perplexing Major League careers you’ll ever see. At 23, he claimed the Rangers starting center field job and posted average or better seasons in both of his first two years on the job. In fact, in 1983, Wright’s strong play landed him a down-ballot MVP vote. In his third year in the big leagues, however, Wright’s skills disappeared- he stopped walking, his power dropped, his BABIP fell, and his defensive value took a hit when the Rangers moved him from CF to RF. Then came 1985. With a chance to redeem himself, Wright instead posted one of the worst seasons in baseball history, hitting .191/.241/.242 in nearly 400 trips to the plate.

His awful season built off a poor one the year prior, and his track record of success was simply two years at the beginning of his career. His value was also based on being able to handle center field pretty well, and so once again, we see a guy who is just not that much like Adam Dunn. He had a couple of good years, a down season, and then had an historically awful one, but he hadn’t established himself as a high quality player over any length of time, and he certainly hadn’t shown Dunn’s prowess with the bat.

In fact, none of the guys ahead of Dunn had really shown themselves to be able to hit Major League pitching previous to posting an historically awful season. For the most part, they were guys who were rushed to the big leagues before they were ready or defensive specialists who are getting judged as having poor defensive seasons. Wright is the closest thing we can find to Dunn as a good player who suddenly became bad, but even his fall wasn’t so steep, and his skills weren’t as established.

So, what does history show us? Well, Adam Dunn might not be having the worst single season of the last 50 years, but he’s perhaps having the most inexplicably awful season over that time frame. His peers in terribleness have mostly reasonable excuses for why their numbers are so bad, but for Dunn, it really is just an out-of-nowhere collapse like we haven’t seen in a long, long time.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Steve
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Steve
4 years 10 months ago

Interesting piece. The first question that comes to mind here is, “What is the greatest drop in WAR from season to season?” While the depth of Dunn’s plunge may be nearly unparalleled, I wonder who has fallen the furthest, not necessarily the deepest. Has anyone dropped more than ~6WAR from one season to another?

don
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don
4 years 10 months ago

Do injuries count? If so Bonds’s ~11 WAR drop from 2004-2005 would be hard to top.

dfan
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4 years 10 months ago

I think baseball-reference does WAR differently from fangraphs, but George Scott went from +4.4 in 1967 to -2.9 in 1968 (387 PA at .171/.236/.237) for a drop of 7.3. He bounced back, of course.

dfan
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4 years 10 months ago

(I just checked and the drop in fangraphs WAR is +5.3 to -1.6.)

Matty Brown
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Matty Brown
4 years 10 months ago

Dunn essentially lost me my Ottoneu league. (he was also my highest paid player at $34)

DD
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DD
4 years 10 months ago

Now you know how the White Sox feel.

SC2GG
Guest
4 years 10 months ago

Dunn’s current season is the worst monetary “deal” in MLB history, if you go by what he’s worth according to WAR (5mil per WAR) and then subtracting what he actually earns to get a final result – he’s currently at $-27.5mil.

Santos
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Santos
4 years 10 months ago

180/.228/.261, .212 wOBA, 26 wRC+

If Jeff Mathis weren’t a catcher…

Corvelay
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Corvelay
4 years 10 months ago

I’m a little confused as to why Dave would say the 9th worst season in the last 50 years ‘doesn’t sound so bad, after all’. What it had to be top 5? 99.9996% of the players on that list outperformed Dunn, which is pretty bottom of the barrel. If you filter it to require 400 PA (originally it was only 100 minimum PA), so basically only those that played a good chunk of a season, he is 6th-worst out of 9000. I don’t really think you need to “look at the context of the guys ahead of him” to realize how bad Dunn’s season is; it is apparent to the naked eye.

.

juan pierre's mustache
Guest
juan pierre's mustache
4 years 10 months ago

i think it’s because, when you watch dunn, you can’t help but assume that the only way to do worse would be to attempt to hit with the narrow side of a cricket bat or perhaps one of those tight lies golf clubs

MikeS
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MikeS
4 years 10 months ago

Yeah. turn it on it’s head. The ninth best season is Willie Mays, 1964. .296/.383/.607, wOBA .428. Everybody with a season in the top 9 is in the HOF. So, yeah. 9th worst is a really big deal.

BTW, Mike Caruso? Two of the nine worst season’s in a half century have been put together on the south side.

hunterfan
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hunterfan
4 years 10 months ago

Enjoyed the piece…I would be interested to see the results of an offense only drop…OPS, wRC, whatever. I think that might have a bit more applicability since, as you correctly point out in your article, defensive evaluations from 20+ years ago are not the most reliable. Besides, when we talk about Dunn falling off a cliff, we’re primarily talking about offense since defense never made up a large component of his value.

A guy from PA
Guest
A guy from PA
4 years 10 months ago

Actually defense has made up a large component of his value, in a negative sense. I mean, if he had literally league average defense we’d be talking about a guy with about 40 WAR and borderline hall of fame traditional stats. I know you meant that defense has never been a big part of his game, but it’s surely has a big impact on his value.

Bill but not Ted
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Bill but not Ted
4 years 10 months ago

I agree, not sure WAR is the best statistic in this case. It’s also not illustrative, so when you say Royesters WAR was 3.4 down. I have no idea what that means. Need the context of 28 SB, 28 errors, and a negative 3.38 WPA/LI

Yes the reader can get that information his/herself, but you risk losing the reader when he leaves your blog to research.

Bill but not Ted
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Bill but not Ted
4 years 10 months ago

Or she

Bob
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Bob
4 years 10 months ago

The Sox should put him in LF and bench Pierre.

macseries
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macseries
4 years 10 months ago

Pierre is batting .285 and has the same number of RBI as Dunn as a leadoff man. His 13 CSs cancel out some of that BA, but not enough to get down to Dunn levels.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu
4 years 10 months ago

Oh, this debate is sad.

I’d like to point out that, if you theoretically replaced Dunn ($12M this year), Pierre ($8.5M this year), and Rios ($12M this year) with three replacement level AAAA scrubs, the White Sox would be 71-61, and tied with Detroit in the loss column.

Theoretically.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

32.5 MM producing -3.8 WAR.

i’m speechless.

MikeS
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MikeS
4 years 10 months ago

I made this point a few weeks ago. If you got the expected 6 – 7 WAR from that salaryyou’d be looking pretty good right now.

macseries
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macseries
4 years 9 months ago

i think everyone made that point a few weeks ago.

Xeifrank
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4 years 10 months ago

Andruw Jones had quite a slide.

2005: +8.3 WAR
2006: +6.3 WAR
2007: +3.7 WAR
2008: -1.0 WAR in 238 PA

Just a natural reflex to bring up this player for me.

Brad Johnson
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Brad Johnson
4 years 9 months ago

I had the same reaction and tossed up a quick article at THT yesterday.

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/content/blog_article/adam-dunn-and-offensive-black-holes/

Bill but not Ted
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Bill but not Ted
4 years 10 months ago

anyone else notice that seems the bottom of WAR levels off? I think it suggests the metric is non linear. I think If you can have a season of 7 or 8 positive. I would assume you could get around a bit lower than where the bottom seems to be. Maybe there is something in the formula that is ‘holding’ the output WAR up?

Or maybe, probably more realistically, it’s just a function of the correlation of being terrible and playing time?

Very interesting article. To make this list you have to either have insane potential or a good track record to stay in the lineup in order to accumulate these stats.

But I am still surprised the Dunner’s WAR isn’t significantly lower

SaloF
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SaloF
4 years 10 months ago

That is the whole thing about WAR, that you have an infinite pool of available replacement level players. So a player that drops to a negative WAR could be replaced by a better player for free.

It actually works well, there were only 9 players with negative WAR last year and mostly, good established players from which teams expected turn around or with a very bad defense according to UZR (which sometimes it´s not valued by teams)

Bill but not Ted
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Bill but not Ted
4 years 10 months ago

So Adam Dunn’s performance this year only cost the Sox 4.5 wins this year?

SaloF
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SaloF
4 years 10 months ago

@Bill but not Ted
yes, plus the extra millions they gave thinking he would perform above replacement. That much.

A replacement player does not add value, everybudy else does exepct rare cases like Dunn.

That´s the cool thing about replacement level. You cannot compare performances to absolute zero, since no one would be allowed to play in the big leagues under replacement level

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
4 years 9 months ago

I think there is a finite amount of AAAA players. They are also hard to find to fill a particular slot at some parts of the year. Around rule 5 draft time… yeah, you can get them.

Paul
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Paul
4 years 10 months ago

Loved the piece.

Still don’t get the point of UZR though. Seems like every article it’s used in requires a note to its lack of validity.

juan pierre's mustache
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juan pierre's mustache
4 years 10 months ago

lack of validity is not the same as imperfect accuracy

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
4 years 9 months ago

Yeah, but there is not a standard error reported for UZR, so it is big when the author wants it to be an small when the author wants it to be.

TK
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TK
4 years 10 months ago

What’s more amazing, Dunn’s collapse or the number of PAs the Sox gave him?

Yinka Double Dare
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Yinka Double Dare
4 years 10 months ago

And now he might not even get to beat out Rob Deer for that “worst average ever” distinction, because they’ve brought up the Tank (now with something resembling plate discipline!) and Ozzie has said that he’s up to play, not sit, and has basically told Dunn he’s not going to play much the rest of the way.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu
4 years 10 months ago

I wonder:

If Dunn is still hitting .163 at the end of the season with, say, 495 PA’s, do they give him credit for qualifying for the (worst) batting title? Cause, even if he went 7-for-7 in the last 7 PA’s to qualify for 502, he’d still be lower than Deer.

I hope this happens.

michaelfranko
Member
michaelfranko
4 years 9 months ago

I think if you fall short of the qualified PA for the batting title, they give you 0 hits + necessary AB to meet minimum, and you get to keep your old average and win the batting title with it if your new average is still higher than everyone else’s.

So I guess it should work in reverse?

mickeyg13
Member
4 years 10 months ago

Oddly enough, I think Jose Guillen’s rookie season was considered a success by most in Pittsburgh. He had 70 RBI as a rookie with “good defense,” and he indeed finished tied for 7th in ROY voting (2nd of 3 Pirates in the top 10 during their “Freak Show” season).

Mitch
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Mitch
4 years 10 months ago

I’d like to nominate Jason Bay.

I know he’s not event he worst with the year Chone Figgins is having…

Mitch
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Mitch
4 years 10 months ago

Bay has completely fallen off a cliff. It wasn’t bad enough that the Mets had to deal with the dead weight of Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez but now they’ll have the pleasure of 2 more seasons of Bay at $16M per… Ugh.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 years 10 months ago

Dunn is having a terrible year but he was never a good or great ballplayer to begin with in my view. He hits a lot of homers, doesn’t drive in many runs in relation to his high HR numbers and strikes out 27.5% of the time in his career.
His fielding, throwing and baserunning are all sub-par too. All the Sox are missing from him are the 30 Homers, likely to be solo shots.

Santos
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Santos
4 years 10 months ago

Yeah Adam Dunn was never good at getting other guys on base in front of him.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 years 9 months ago

Maybe for one season yes, but for five different seasons?? He hit 40 homers five different times and his RBI totals never exceeded 106. Check the players that hit 40 homers in a season the last 50 years and his RBI totals are amoung the lowest.

snapper
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snapper
4 years 10 months ago

More like 30 singles, 20 doubles, 30 HR and 40 BB.

That’s a lot of value.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 years 9 months ago

Yes it is, add maybe 30 or 40 runs created, which would be 3-4 WAR and he still is in the 1 WAR group. A 1.0 WAR player is barely above replacement.

MikeS
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MikeS
4 years 10 months ago

Pretend you are right. Pretend he had exactly the same of everything, but 30 more solo HR and 30 fewer outs. I think 10 runs are thought to be equal to a win so 30 solo HR, 30 runs, 3 wins, 2out instead of five back. Big difference.

Of course he is also going to have 20 fewer 2B and 30 fewer 1B and maybe just occasionally there would be someone on base when he hit a HR but who cares about that?

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
4 years 9 months ago

I see, he is the anti-Jack Morris of batting. He bats against the score board.

Do you think he waits for nobody to be on base before he brings out the long ball swing?

Phantom Stranger
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Phantom Stranger
4 years 10 months ago

I have not seen enough White Sox games this year to analyze why Dunn has fallen off a cliff this year at the plate. What is the consensus on the deterioration in his skills? Did the appendix surgery just decimate his bat speed? Why did it take the White Sox so long to figure out that Dunn was a turkey this year and needed to be shelved? Was it all about protecting the ego of a player you just signed for huge dollars? The White Sox very likely win the division if Dunn had performed at his typical production.

huisj
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huisj
4 years 10 months ago

He looks like he’s swinging with his eyes closed after he hears the sound of the ball go past him. He’s late and far away from everything.

Red Line Trane
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Red Line Trane
4 years 10 months ago

The White Sox can be forgiven for playing Dunn to June or July. They had just handed him a pretty hefty contract, Dunn had been a model of consistency before this season, and I think it’s only human to assume that at some point he just had to regress to the mean. When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, they should have called up Viciedo, but the White Sox dragged their feet on that (didn’t want to disrespect any “veterans.”)

As to why he’s fallen off a cliff, your guess is as good as any. His BABIP is down (.243 compared to his career .292). His swing discipline %’s are virtually identical to last season’s. I didn’t watch him much with the Nationals or Reds, so I can’t say if his bat speed has slowed. The appendectomy may have had something to do with it, but to my eyes, a lot of it is in his head at this point. He really does just seem lost at the plate.

Mr Punch
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Mr Punch
4 years 10 months ago

dfan mentions George Scott in ’68 – Scott was a young player then, and was evidently flummoxed by having his swing messed with, and by the pressure of providing RH power in the absence of Tony Conigliaro. In other words, there were identifiable reasons for his awful season.

Dunn does take the focus off Carl Crawford, who’s not usually much worse than Coco Crisp. Crawford’s falloff is worse than Bay’s.

greg
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greg
4 years 10 months ago

I remember Robbie Alomar’s drop off for 01 to 02 as a massivef. I guess old age would explain it, since he never recovered, and was 2 years older than Dunn is when it happened. 6.7 -> 1.7 drop in WAR. I didn’t realize he ended up that useful, I figured he was done at that point.

baycommuter
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baycommuter
4 years 10 months ago

Include pitchers, and you have Steve Blass, the gold standard for falling off a cliff. 1972 WAR= 4.4 1973: -5.8.

EDogg1438
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EDogg1438
4 years 10 months ago

Wow the K/BB numbers for Blass in his final 2 seasons are astounding. I’m aware of Steve Blass Disease (and suffer from it somewhat myself), but the numbers are worse than I could have even imagined:

93 2/3 IP 91 BB 29 K

Yes….he had over 3x as many BB as K in his final 2 seasons…

Mitch
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Mitch
4 years 10 months ago

“old age skills” don’t age well.

EDogg1438
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EDogg1438
4 years 10 months ago

I thought Vernon Wells had been awful (and he has), but even he has managed a wOBA higher than Dunn’s….

MikeS
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MikeS
4 years 10 months ago

The most amazing stat?

Dunn only has three more hits off lefties this year than I do.

SoxfaninDC
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SoxfaninDC
4 years 10 months ago

I just keep coming back to the fact that White Sox would be significantly better if Daniel Hudson played DH. In addition to his hitting, Hudson is a capable starting pitcher, as demonstrated by his 14 wins for Arizona this year.

Brandon Warne
Member
Member
4 years 10 months ago

Man, I had no idea at all that McCarty got that many at bats in ’93.

That was my first season watching baseball, and my persistent image of him is that of a hitter who was constantly striking out looking, with his hands extended over his head as to suggest the pitch was far too inside to be a strike.

And it felt like he did that EVERY SINGLE TIME. Then again, I was seven.

The Nicker
Member
Member
The Nicker
4 years 9 months ago

Forget those guys you mentioned, Tony Pena managed to rack up over -2 WAR in less than 100 games. With a POSITIVE UZR. AT SHORTSTOP. Wow. That is some bad hitting.

WayneNordhagenLives
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WayneNordhagenLives
4 years 9 months ago

I saw Adam Dunn hit a huge home run in 2010 off Cole Hamels, one of the best lefties in the National League. His bat speed looked plenty good. As a Nats fan, I was sad to see him go, but developments have made Nats GM Mike Rizzo look like a genius. (Then he signed Jayson Werth for $126M and looked like an idiot.) The Dunn thing is troubling. His numbers have been amazingly consistent. For him to fall so far so fast is a real puzzler. Have a subpar year? Okay. Become completely inept? What’s going on with him??

Neifi Perez
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Neifi Perez
4 years 9 months ago

Did I actually manage to post a -52 wRC my rookie season? It takes a lot of hard work to post a -0.8 WAR over 17 games. Good thing Dusty always had a contract for me wherever he went.

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
4 years 9 months ago

Dunn is so bad you almost have to start to wonder if he should have failed his physical or there is something wrong with his eyes. He can’t really have that much muscle weakness or he couldn’t hit any long balls.

The Frankman
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The Frankman
4 years 9 months ago

What about Jason Bay last year? He was pretty brutal and he’s supposed to be a good player.

Swingdoc
Member
Swingdoc
4 years 9 months ago

For those interested in possible swing mechanics issues, it appears he is starting his hands much sooner in the swing – supported by the spike in O-Swing% in 2010 and increased K%. Power outage also evident in comparing/contrasting 2008 and current swing ……

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68MG3U_mjLU

Devon
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4 years 9 months ago

Somebody should tell Dunn that a DH is supposed to hit FOR the pitcher, not hit LIKE a pitcher. heh. All those years in the NL must’ve got him confused.

Ben V-L
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Ben V-L
4 years 9 months ago

Willie McGee managed to pull a -2.4 WAR season (-2.6 on bb-ref) in 1999 with only 290 PA. That feat required a stubborn manager who knew better than the rest of the world. McGee even knew what damage he was doing and refused to come back the next year in spite of La Russa’s urging.

Dan
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Dan
4 years 6 months ago

I did not agree with your analysis of Dan Meyer. I had always remembered him as one of the standouts of the Mariners first year (22 HR and 90 RBI’). So he had proven himself to some degree and 1978 was quite a drop-off. Not that he is anything close to Adam Dunn. Dunn’s season is one of the most bizarre things I can remember in MLB.

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