Adam Dunn’s Failed Experiment

Adam Dunn arrived in the Major Leagues in 2001. Since then, he has led the major leagues in both walks (1,172) and strikeouts (2,046) and is third in home runs (408), and his career stands as something of the perfect example of the Three True Outcomes. Of the 7,256 times he’s walked up to the plate, 3,702 of those PAs (51%) have ended without defensive involvement. Dunn has perfected the slow pitch softball style of baseball and turned that skillset into a pretty effective big league career.

And now, at age 33, Dunn is participating in an experiment to become an entirely new kind of hitter. Two weeks in, and it’s hard to call the experiment anything other than a total failure.

Back in spring training, Dunn told the world that this change was coming:

“I’m fighting myself over this,” Dunn said, “because I don’t want to give up something that I do very well, like walks and get deep in counts, to something in the past I haven’t done very well, and that’s being more aggressive early on.”

Dunn is correct that he hasn’t historically been an aggressive hitter. He’s swung at just 41.1% of the pitches he’s been thrown since 2002 — the first year BIS recorded plate discipline data — and has only swung at the first pitch of an at-bat 27% of the time. Both of those marks are below the league average, and support what we already knew; Dunn has been a selective hitter whose strategy has been to get himself into hitter’s counts and then swing for the moon.

The 2013 version of Adam Dunn doesn’t resemble that guy at all. Not only has Dunn swung at 50% of the pitches he’s been thrown — a career high by a mile — he’s also swung at the first pitch in 46% of his plate appearances, the seventh highest first-pitch swing rate in all of baseball. For context, Pablo Sandoval is swinging at 48% of first pitches, and Josh Hamilton is swinging at 49%. On the first pitch, Adam Dunn has essentially become an undisciplined hack.

Of the 22 times Dunn has swung at the first pitch this year, he’s put the ball in play 10 times, resulting in one double, one home run, and eight outs. The other 12 swings have either been whiffs or fouls, putting him in an 0-1 count for the at-bat. Combining the outs with the strikes, Dunn’s early aggressiveness has resulted in a poor outcome 91% of the time.

This shift in approach has had a pretty significant effect on the types of counts where Dunn’s at-bats end. Here’s a breakdown of the counts in which he has either walked, struck out, or put the ball in play this year, compared to his career averages.

2013 PA % Career PA %
First Pitch 10 22% First Pitch 663 9%
1-0 Count     1-0 Count 359 5%
2-0 Count     2-0 Count 159 2%
3-0 Count     3-0 Count 341 5%
0-1 Count 4 9% 0-1 Count 372 5%
1-1 Count 2 4% 1-1 Count 452 6%
2-1 Count 3 7% 2-1 Count 353 5%
3-1 Count 6 13% 3-1 Count 503 7%
0-2 Count 4 9% 0-2 Count 451 6%
1-2 Count 5 11% 1-2 Count 936 13%
2-2 Count 7 15% 2-2 Count 1148 16%
Full Count 5 11% Full Count 1519 21%

Since there’s a lot of small sample noise there, maybe a summary chart will do a better job of showing the shift here.

2013 PA % Career PA %
Batter Ahead 14 30% Batter Ahead 3234 45%
Even Count 19 41% Even Count 2263 31%
Pitcher Ahead 13 28% Pitcher Ahead 1759 24%

Finally, one more table, showing not just the counts that at-bats ended on, but the percentage of hitter’s counts that Dunn has gotten into in the first place, per Baseball Reference.

Year 3-0% 2-0%
2013 4% 7%
Career 8% 19%

Adam Dunn used to get into a lot of good hitter’s counts. 2013 Adam Dunn no longer does that.

Moving at-bats from hitter’s counts to even counts is simply a net loss, but this change isn’t solely about swinging at different times during an at-bat. In the piece linked above, Dunn notes that he’s also changing the trigger that tells him to swing or take.

“We’re going to focus on an area and not a pitch,” Dunn said. “Normally I focus on a pitch, like I know a guy’s tendencies. So early in the count, I’ll try to get to a certain count because I know 70 percent of the time he throws a changeup in 1-0 counts, stuff like that.

“Instead of looking for a specific pitch in a specific location, I’m going to try this spring to look at a location early and let it fly.”

“What it really will require is practice,” he said, “like literally telling myself, ‘I’m swinging at this pitch until my eyes tell me otherwise,’ as opposed to saying, ‘If I don’t see fastball, shut it down.’

“It’s going to be hard. I’m not going to lie to you. But we’ve got a long spring, so it will be good.”

While previously Dunn would select based on pitch type, now he’s keying off location. Or, at least, that’s what he said the plan was. Thanks to the wonderful PITCHF/x tool from TexasLeaguers, we can actually see that he’s following through with this plan. Here’s a plot of every pitch he’s taken this year.

DunnTake

You can probably spot the giant hole there. Middle-in and slightly elevated, Dunn has swung at every pitch he’s been thrown this year. Dunn said he wanted to look at a location at let it fly; it seems pretty clear what location he’s looking for. From BaseballHeatMaps, here’s Dunn’s swing rates against RHPs compared the league average for that part of the zone.

DunnSwing

And here’s that same heat map, just for 2008-2012.

DunnSwingOld

Dunn has basically adapted his approach to swing at anything on the inner half as long as it isn’t at the knees. Instead of studying pitcher tendencies and trying to get into counts where he can guess what’s coming, he’s now just looking for a ball middle in at any point in the at-bat.

And the results have been disastrous. He’s hitting .136/.174/.295, good for just a .206 wOBA. Because he’s falling behind more often than he used to, the more aggressive approach hasn’t really trimmed his strikeout rate, but it’s basically eliminated his ability to draw walks; he has just two bases on balls so far. Sacrificing walks for more hits and more home runs could be a worthy trade-off if that was the result, but what Dunn has really accomplished so far is trading walks for outs.

At some point in the near future, Dunn is going to have to make a choice. He’s had a solid 11 year career as a selective hitter who got into hitter’s counts and keyed off a specific pitch, and now he’s had a pretty terrible two weeks as an aggressive hitter who swings at anything middle-in and elevated. Perhaps with more work at it, Dunn will make the necessary adjustments and get back to being a productive hitter. But, realistically, he was already a productive hitter. There isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that Aggressive Dunn will be significantly more productive than Patient Dunn, and given the cost the team is paying while he attempts to make this shift, it’s hard to see how Dunn’s transformation is actually going to be a net positive for the White Sox.

If he was a 21-year-old kid with a bright future ahead of him, I think you could make a pretty decent case for adapting his approach at the plate. Dunn, though, is a 33-year-old with a long history of Major League success doing things the way he was doing them, and he’s only under contract with the White Sox for 2013 and 2014, so the White Sox are making a short-term-for-long-term trade-off with a player that they may not even retain beyond next season. It might have been an experiment with good intentions, but even though 46 plate appearances is an awfully small sample, it’s probably getting close to time for everyone involved to consider the exercise a failure and let Dunn get back to what he has always been good at.

If the White Sox wanted an aggressive power hitter, they shouldn’t have signed Adam Dunn to begin with. That’s just not what he’s ever been, and trying to make him an aggressive power hitter at age-33 is looking like a pretty big mistake.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


61 Responses to “Adam Dunn’s Failed Experiment”

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  1. Aaron says:

    I’m sure he’d be hitting better, of course, if he actually liked baseball.

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  2. Forrest Gumption says:

    Pretty much every hitter who walks a lot but doesn’t hit .300 has been forced by baseball tradition to undergo this same “failed experiment”. Luckily Dunn’s career was not sacrificed like Jack Cust, Pat Burrell, Daric Barton and countless other’s were.

    Doing one thing extremely great does not always = has potential to do everything great.

    MLB still thinks that is possible, and directly ruins careers of those who do the very most basic basis of their job, i.e. not make an out, if they deem the way not to be how the greats do it. Players should not mess with what works.

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    • Jon says:

      Dunn’s terrible batting average last year led to an obp of .333 and slugging .468, terrible marks for a full-time DH who’s a poor baserunner and positively dangerous in the field. And that season, which was well below his established skills from many prior seasons, was a huge rebound from his atrocious 2011. If Dunn is making changes, it’s because he’s changed in recent years from an extremely dangerous offensive player to a guy who’s in danger of not qualifying for a major league roster.

      Keep in mind, for his skillset, there’s not an especially big difference between not warranting an everyday spot in the lineup and not warranting a spot on the roster at all.

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      • Ryan says:

        .333OBP and .468 Slugging = .801 OPS. That is not ‘terrible’. No one would call a .775+ OPS terrible. That being said, he looks bad out there and it’s hard to keep running a guy out with a BA that starts with a 1. No matter how many walks he gets.

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      • Synovia says:

        By Terrible, you mean 6th in the league, right?

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        • Jon L. says:

          6th in the league? To what are you referring? In 2012, Dunn’s .333/.468/.800 were 38th/26th/30th. (Career numbers were .381/.521/.902 before 2011.)

          Fangraphs has him as worth 1.7 WAR, b-ref as 1.3. Maybe “terrible” is too strong, but I still think a DH/1B who puts that up in a full season is only borderline rosterable.

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  3. Sleight of Hand Pro says:

    i think its curious you compare this to slow pitch softball. in my slow pitch softball league, nobody ever strikes out or walks, and homers are rare.

    anyway, consider your nits picked. carry on.

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    • VivaAyala says:

      This. In slow pitch softball, it’s all about hitting line drives and running the bases well. In my leagues, you actually get a little grief if you either walk or strike out.

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      • Sleight of Hand Pro says:

        agreed. i just found the comparison odd is all. in my slow pitch softball league now, and the ones in college, the defense was literally involved on every play. it was the complete opposite of 3 true outcomes. for dave to liken the 2 is just…. weird.

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        • Jay29 says:

          Yeah, Dunn would be awesome in slow-pitch softball, but not because of his (pre-2013) plate discipline. He’d be good because of his power, just as a powerful free-swinger like Vlad Guerrero or Adrian Beltre would.

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        • Ted's Head says:

          If by weird, you mean completely ignorant and asinine then I agree with you. Oh, never mind the SSS. What a sloppy article. I would have expected Swydan or Thurm (both of which I don’t waste my time on anymore) to put together this steaming pile of crap.

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        • Jason B says:

          Are there other voices in Ted’s Head we can speak to?

          Ya know, any that aren’t d!ckheads?

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    • Toasty says:

      Hey, I strike out all the time in my slow-pitch softball league! I also bat last and play “catcher,” so there’s that.

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  4. AlexandertheMeh says:

    I totally thought this was going to be an article about a potato battery.

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  5. tuberippin says:

    Adam Dunn’s career peaks and valleys are highly interesting. His approach to the plate makes him one of the more interesting players of the last ten or twenty years, in my opinion. To see him suddenly invert his career body of work for no apparent reason is curious.

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  6. Matt says:

    1. We’re only 2 weeks in as said.

    2. He has a .148 BABIP so far.

    3. I give him until mid May and if he hasn’t seen a significant improvement, he needs to go back to his old approach. The Sox currently rank 30th in on-base percentage and if he’s still swinging and missing on those first two pitches he’s turned himself into a true TWO outcome player. They need SOMEBODY to get on base and Dunn has a proven track record of being able to do that via the walk.

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  7. Matty Brown says:

    Those are some interesting pieces of contemporary art you have displayed. The first one makes me think of a fox and the second a bull.

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  8. derp says:

    Cretinous coaches preaching witchcraft against the proven facts have ruined so many player’s careers before they even began. The sheer ignorance is damned sickening and now that I’ve realized that my interest for the game is quickly fading. Why would I support this kind of behavior?

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      IMHO, the problem occurs because the coach had been successful in some situations with the strategy and now thinks that’s the answer for every player. When you’re struggling, well duh, you gotta be more aggressive.

      People used to say that Wade Boggs should try and hit for more power and stop taking the first pitch all the time.

      Basically, if these players would be perfect, then they could have a chance at meeting everyone’s expectations. But, until they do, we’re all “experts” at what should happen (just saying we are all some type of armchair quarterback) or what a player needs to do.

      I can hear my dad in my mind saying that Josh Hamilton needs to stop swinging at some many bad pitches and just “hit the damn ball”. Great wisdom, Dad. I’m sure Josh Hamilton never considered either of those great items of insight. Let me guess, pitchers should “throw strikes” and “keep the ball” down (imaginary talk with dad). Great, I’ll let the professionals know, they probably were not aware of this. Want me to tell them to keep the ball in the yard? Okay, will do. *grin*

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      • Bill says:

        So, you have some issues with your dad? I’d work that out. Also, if you bust on every fan for telling players to do the obvious, you’ll probably end up hating a lot of people. Obviously, hitters shouldn’t swing at bad balls and pitchers should, generally, keep the ball down. I’ll yell this a players from time to time from the stands. I know they know this. It’s more me wanting them to do this.

        Furthermore, from time to time, you’ll see a catcher emphatically signal to his pitcher to keep the ball down. Is the catcher an idiot for telling the pitcher to do something the pitcher certainly already knows?

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Not really.

        We (coaches) talk about some of the “best” things we hear fans/parents yell from the stands. Things that were likely yelled to them when they were playing.

        “Throw strikes” is probably the best one.

        I’m talking about fans/parents that say things that are obvious to everyone involved. I don;t hate on fans or carry around resentment, just commentary on people stating the obvious. I suppose it occurs in every walk of life.

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    • Joe Mauer says:

      I don’t like it when people use “cretinous” to describe being against plate discipline.

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  9. mtwhelan says:

    it would be one thing for them to ask him to do this after 2011. I’m not sure what they have to complain about in 2012

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  10. MikeS says:

    Does anybody know if this was Dunn’s idea or his hitting coach? Jeff Manto is on record as preferring hitters to be aggressive and does not mind if they don’t see a lot of pitches. The White Sox are last in MLB in walks and OBP. Last year they were 12th in the AL in BB.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    Of the 22 times Dunn has swung at the first pitch this year, he’s put the ball in play 10 times, resulting in one double, one home run, and eight outs.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I REALLY need to know more about those 8 outs.

    Did he hit toppers to 2B or fly outs to the track? Liners at the RF or pop ups to 3B?

    Isn’t the quality of contact the most important thing when deciding to hit the 1st pitch?

    If Adam Dunn had 2 bloop hits and a broken bat infield hit where the C and 3B couldn’t decide who was going to pick it up to go along with the double and HR, would an article be written about how Dunn’s “new approach” has resulted in him batting .500 when making contact while swinging at the first pitch? Probably not.

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  12. balticfox1917 says:

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why Dunn would change his approach after so many years at being accomplished in drawing walks–an average of 95+ if you throw out his dreadful 2011 campaign–is hard to understand.
    Did he really think he would cut down his strikeouts?

    Thanks for the article. I own Dunn in an AL-only league that counts BBs as one of the offensive categories, and I’ve been mystified by the lack of walks.

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    • Jake says:

      Why would the White Sox ask him to make this change in approach AND move him into the 3 spot. Seems like if he is just swinging at a particular location and no longer working counts, they should move him to the 5 spot.

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    • Jon says:

      I think batting .159 in 2011 has something to do with it. When batting .204 is considered a “great rebound year,” you’re going to have a really hard time convincing a team to reserve their regular DH slot for you.

      Derek Jeter has managed to preserve his high batting average through age and declining skills in part by his ability to selectively jump on hittable first pitches. If Dunn can be selective and choose good pitches to hit late in an at-bat, why can’t he learn to do it early in an at-bat? As far as focusing on a zone rather than a pitch, is location maybe a better predictor of success for Dunn? Not that that alone would be enough to say one way or the other whether he should approach the at-bat that way.

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  13. philosofool says:

    Why don’t I ever read stories about a hitting coach who meets a player and decides that his skill set would work really well if the dude could just learn to work the count better? It’s like every coach in baseball wants to respect every dumb-ass strategy that a guy might have and just wants to get him better tools for implementing his strategy.

    It seems to me that, unlike swing mechanics, pitch recognition, and other necessary skills for hitting, you can reliably teach this to a guy and there are simple tricks for making you better at taking the first pitch. (Namely, roll a die and if it comes up 1 or 2, take no matter what, otherwise, approach the at bat the same way you always do. Obviously there are lots of ways to get a probability of taking different from 1/3 if that is too much or too little.)

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    • philosofool says:

      I take part of this back. Hitting coaches obviously don’t respect Adam Dunn’s (not dumb-ass) former strategy. However, that’s no excuse for letting guys hack at the first pitch or having a 3 foot wide strike zone in a 3-2 count.

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    • jorgath_dc says:

      Because you don’t read the Washington Post. There was an article about exactly that with Ian Desmond in 2011.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      They do. The problem is that batters aren;t perfect, and so the first time the batter freezes and takes a cockshot, he or the coach says “forget that, I’m going back to my old ways”.

      The Cardinals wanted Rasmus to be more selective and CR disagreed.

      The REAL issue is that the major league level is the toughest place to make adjustments and change habits. Most players are in “survival mode” at that level.

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  14. TKDC says:

    The White Sox as a team have 16 walks. Joey Votto has 20.

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  15. Steve says:

    It’s too early to be drawing these conclusions. Dunn is a major league hitter… barring a year that resembles 2011, he’ll be fine

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  16. Ctownboy says:

    Coming up through the Minor Leagues, the scouts said Dunn:

    1) had tremendous power

    2) could hit to all fields

    3) had a good eye and was patient.

    The first two years in the Majors, Dunn showed all of these things. Then he changed, either because of Ken Griffey Jr or the new ball park. Once he changed, he gave up trying to hit the ball to all fields and became a strictly pull hitter.

    He got lazy and strictly started looking for fast balls over the inner third of the plate located between the upper thigh and the belt. If he didn’t get that pitch, he would not swing. That is why even with a runner on Third Base and less than two outs, Dunn would take a ball over the outer third of the plate for strike three and not swing at it.

    In short, because of this approach and his HORRIBLE defense, Dunn became a BEER league (not slow pitch) softball player playing Home Run derby.

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  17. Chad says:

    That’s pretty funny, you should write for Deadspin.

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  18. Sam says:

    You seem to have missed the obvious difference between Dunn’s 2013 and the rest of career–and it has nothing to do with Dunn making any conscious decisions to alter his hitting style. Pitchers are throwing him far more pitches in the strike zone this year than they ever have.

    Only 44.7% of pitches thrown to Dunn over the course of his career have been in the stroke zone–which is well below average. This year, it’s 53.1%–which is well above average.

    While Dunn is swinging at pitches in the strike zone more often this year, the majority of his increase in swing % is due to pitchers throwing more pitches across the plate to him. And it’s not a big surprise that his zoneswing% has gone up given that he can’t get ahead in counts as often with pitchers refusing to throw him balls.

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    • RojasHoneybee says:

      Perhaps that is a result, rather than a cause. Could opposing team’s coaching staff’s be so vigilant as to notice statements like Dunn’s? I think they might.

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      • Synovia says:

        If coaching staffs had heard he was going to be more aggressive and swing more, they’d have their pitchers throw less strikes, not more.

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  19. Jim says:

    If he wants to experiment, I suggest he learn to bunt to kill the shift.

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  20. Willy says:

    Dunn is probably finished as a MLB player.
    The league finaly figured out he will hit .200-.235, regardless.
    So the pitchers just stopped being so careful with him and now challenge him with more strikes. He simply is a poor hitter that has never figured out how to make contact consistently. Always played on non-contending teams with no presuure or expectations to be better.
    There are probably 100’s of minor league players that can put up equal or better numbers than Dunn, if given the chance.
    He’s undoubtedly a great person, but if strikeouts bothered him as he says, he would have made adjustments years ago. He actually becoming a worse hitter as time goes by. His confidence is shot, he’s lying about feeling good, seeing the ball good, and hitting it hard. Three-hop grounders to the infield is not enough.
    Retire now ans save yourself the experience of having the alltime worst season again!!!

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  21. TheUncool says:

    Not too sure, but seems like he might be taking more pitches again if the last few games provide an indication… not that the results have changed any so far…

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  22. jusayin says:

    since this was published…

    dunn has played 71 games and has a .841 OPS, with 22 HR, 55 RBI and 39 walks. his BABIP has been .236 since then, too.

    dunn’s attitude has been great apparently, and he continues to have managerial support. his last two months have been exceptional. i am bullish on him at this point.

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  23. Steve says:

    After watching JPA Strike Out, play awful defense and hitting 20+ jacks a year I understand the frustration watching Dunn. I used to think I’d gladly trade strike outs for power – no thanks.

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