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Is Adam Dunn Finished on the South Side?

It probably didn’t escape too many people’s attention, but it bears repeating: Adam Dunn had a terrible year.

If you knew he was struggling, but didn’t own him, it may not have sunk in just how bad his year was. His line tells much of the story: at .159/.292/.277 he did contributed for the White Sox — nor indeed for fantasy owners. Every one of those statistics was a career low, and his .569 OPS was .250 points lower than his previous career worst. His ISO of .118 put him in league with the likes of Jemile Weeks, Michael Brantley, and Rafael Furcal, which would be fine…if he were a defensively-minded middle infielder instead the third highest-paid DH of all time. He was caught stealing more times — one — than he was intentionally walked; it was the first time in his career he had failed to draw a single intentional pass.

I can understand the excitement for Dunn going into the season in light of his move from Nats Park to US Cell, one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors, but he was probably still a slight reach at 37. At the end of the day, it matters little whether his projected production would have merited a choice in the early rounds, his actual production made him virtually unplayable.

He won’t be taken in the 30s next year, that much I will guarantee you, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll slip into a range where he could plausibly be called a sleeper. I’m guessing most fantasy players will be willing to write off 2011 as a fluke and look at his career numbers when drafting, but that could still push Dunn into the 50s or 60s in mixed drafts.

My early sense is that he’ll be 2012’s Justin Morneau, who was the next first baseman drafted after Dunn in most leagues. He was taken about 25 picks after Dunn and 20 picks before Kendrys Morales, clearly setting him away from not only the top tier first baseman, but also from the perceived weaker options. Like Morneau in 2011, there is uncertainty about what Dunn will do, but there is an expectation of improvement.

So the question is: Was Dunn’s miserable 2011 a fluke?

2011 was Dunn’s second straight year of declining production, and while the difference between 2009 and 2010 wasn’t nearly so drastic as the drop between 2010 and 2011, it does mean that 2011 isn’t isolated or counter to Dunn’s career arc. The difference between Dunn’s useful 2010 and his painful 2011 comes down to the contact he was making, which manifested itself in two major ways: his BABIP and his flyball rate.

While Dunn will never be a high average hitter, the time spent waiting for his power to show up would have been less painful if he had hit above .250. Instead, his BABIP fell 89 points from 2010 to 2011 and sat 50 points below his career average. He actually had a good line drive percentage, but his flyballs seemed drawn to gloves. His BABIP will rise next year, the conditions for it failing to do so are hard to imagine, but that won’t help Dunn’s home run numbers.

Dunn hit fewer flyballs this year than he had in any season since 2008 and had less than 10 percent of them leave the yard. The low HR/FB rate is the bigger issue, but it was compounded by the fact that he gave himself the fewest chances to hit a home run ever. Prior to last season, Dunn had never hit fewer than 130 flyballs, but in 2011, he hit just 114. His 47.5 percent flyball rate was his lowest since 2008. Add in his highest pop-up rate since 2003 and it would seem that Dunn simply struggled to make good contact. Few balls in play were hit hard enough to turn into hits and even fewer were hit squarely enough to leave the park.

His swinging rates and contact numbers would seem to support this idea. While he swung at fewer pitches overall than he did in 2010, he frequently made contact on pitches that were out of the zone — a career high 57 percent in fact. He made contact on pitches in the zone, pitches he could actually drive, at his worst rate since 2004. Pitchers certainly weren’t looking to give Dunn any help as he saw the lowest number of pitches in the strike zone in his career. A bit more patience might have given Dunn and tremendous AVG/OBP split fueled by a huge walk rate, but he swung at pitches out of the zone and threw opposing pitchers a lifeline.

Unless Dunn simply lost his ability to identify pitches — doubtful — I don’t see him having the same issues again next year. Whether he was pressing because of his new contract or for some other reason, I find it somewhat hard to believe that it’ll be present again next year. If he’ll challenge for 40 HR again, I can’t say, but with his BABIP bouncing back and a little better pitch selection, there’s no reason to believe Dunn can’t get his OPS back into the .850-.900 range.