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.