Adam Dunn: A True (Outcomes) Hero

I’ve been wanting to write about Adam Dunn for a long time. To me, he is one of the most intriguing players in baseball, and guys like me have been expecting big things from him for quite a while now.

Back in 2001, Dunn had one of the best seasons you’ll ever see a 21-year-old have. Between Double-A, Triple-A and the Majors, Dunn put up these totals:

  G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     RUN     RBI      BB     SB
160     594     .305     .405     .633     40     51     128     127     100     10

What’s not to like there? .305 batting average, 40 doubles, 51 homers, 100 walks, 10 stolen bases. That’s just a beautiful stat line. The only downside is that Dunn struck out 156 times, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

66 of those 160 games came with the Reds, with whom Dunn batted .262/.371/.578 with 19 homers, 18 doubles and 38 walks. As you can imagine, Dunn was in the majors to stay at that point. He started the 2002 season with the Reds and he was crushing the ball early.

Dunn hit .288/.433/.506 in April, .323/.480/.594 in May, .303/.417/.506 in June and .253/.452/.590 in July. He was at .300/.452/.544 with 17 homers, 14 doubles and 78 walks at the All-Star break, and it looked like we had a 22-year-old superstar on our hands. Then the second-half of the season started, and Dunn suddenly couldn’t buy a hit. He was still walking and he was still hitting for some power, but Dunn collected just 48 hits in 252 second-half at-bats, leading to a post All-Star break performance of .190/.339/.353.

Here’s an interesting little tidbit from Dunn’s second-half struggles: he drove in 54 runs in 283 first-half at-bats, but then knocked in a total of just 17 runs in 252 at-bats in the second-half. 17 runs in 252 at-bats from a guy who stayed healthy and batted almost entirely in the middle of the lineup is pretty damn amazing, regardless of how badly he hit.

A .190 batting average in the second-half will do some serious damage to season totals, and Dunn ended 2002 hitting a solid but somewhat disappointing .249/.400/.454 with 26 homers, 28 doubles and 128 walks.

Last season, Dunn once again got off to a hot start, hitting .253/.382/.627 with nine homers in April. Also like 2002, Dunn struggled in the second-half, hitting .255 with a .383 slugging percentage, while getting only 94 at-bats due to injuries. Whereas his hot hitting in 2002 lasted for several months, 2003’s hot start was only April, so Dunn’s final numbers looked very unappealing: .215/.354/.465.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few corner outfielders who would take a .353 on-base percentage or a .465 slugging percentage, but the first two full seasons of Adam Dunn’s career didn’t exactly look like many expected them to.

Fast forward now to this season. Adam Dunn is once again off to a very good start. In fact, aside from the freak of nature playing left field in San Francisco, Dunn has been the best hitter in the National League this year.

His 2004 totals:

 G     AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     RUN     RBI     BB     SB
26     76     .303     .518     .697      3      9      21      19     33      2

That’s a 55 HR/120 RBI/130 R/200 BB pace. I see that and all of those high expectations I had for Dunn start popping up again and I start thinking about what kind of incredible power and walk numbers he can put up in his career. Of course, then I remember that he came out of the gates strong in 2002 and 2003 too, and that didn’t exactly lead to MVP-caliber seasons.

The other day I talked about Jim Thome, who got off to very slow starts from 2000-2003, but still managed to have incredible overall numbers when each season ended. Adam Dunn, so far at least, seems to be the opposite of that. He has done extremely well from the outset in each of his four seasons in the majors.

From his great MLB debut in 2001, to his outstanding first-half in 2002, and his .627 April slugging percentage last year. And then, of course, what he’s done so far this season. Yet, for all of those good months and all of those good beginnings, Dunn is a career .244 hitter with a .489 slugging percentage.

Despite Dunn’s up-and-down seasons, the one skill he has consistently shown, even through the struggles, is very good plate discipline. Take a look at his walk rates in his various “halves”:

'01 2nd         .133
'02 1st         .215
'02 2nd         .162
'03 1st         .160
'03 2nd         .158
'04 1st         .300

Dunn is walking like a madman this year, but aside from that his walk rates look pretty similar. Another way of looking at that is to prorate those per-plate-appearance numbers over the course of a full season (~650 plate appearances):

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
'01 2nd           87
'02 1st          140
'02 2nd          105
'03 1st          104
'03 2nd          103
'04 1st          195

Unless he plans on becoming Barry Bonds full-time this year, he won’t keep up his current walk rate. Still, if he keeps slugging in the .600s, he’ll cruise past 100 walks.

While there is some fluctuation in those walk rates, compare that to his power by halves (using Isolated Power, which is SLG minus AVG):

'01 2nd        .316
'02 1st        .244
'02 2nd        .163
'03 1st        .289
'03 2nd        .128
'04 1st        .394

Whereas his second-half walk rates have been fairly similar to his first-half rates, his Isolated Power is all over the place and has plummeted in his two full-season second-halves.

The first question that comes to mind when I think of a guy like Dunn — lots of walks, lots of homers, lots of strikeouts — struggling for huge parts of seasons is whether or not his propensity for whiffing is becoming more of an issue during his struggles. Well, let’s take a look…

'01 2nd         .303
'02 1st         .325
'02 2nd         .310
'03 1st         .348
'03 2nd         .277
'04 1st         .381

Dunn’s strikeout rate is actually pretty consistent too. I certainly don’t see much of a correlation between his struggles and his strikeouts.

Finally, let’s take a look at Dunn, not by halves but by whole seasons:

          BB/PA     SO/AB      ISO
2001       .133      .303     .316
2002       .189      .318     .205
2003       .158      .330     .250
2004       .300      .381     .394

Aside from this season (which should probably just be ignored because of sample-size issues and such), there hasn’t been that much difference, season-to-season, in Dunn’s ability to walk or make contact. That’s just the type of player he is; whether he’s slumping or killing the ball, he’s going to be walking and he’s going to be striking out.

The real issue with Dunn, in my opinion, is always going to be his ability to hit singles. That may sound like a weird thing for a player like Dunn, but his singles-hitting is going to determine what his batting average will look like. And, with his relatively consistent rates for walks, strikeouts and power, that will essentially determine what kind of overall season he’ll have.

Just by looking at his walks and power in his career, which have been very stable, you can see how different Dunn’s overall production becomes when the batting average changes. If he hits .280, he’s one of the best offensive players in the league (.280/.425/.550 or so). If he hits .250, he’s an All-Star (.250/.390/.500). If he hits .220, he’ll be hearing about all of his strikeouts (.220/.365/.470).

Dunn is the epitome of a “Three True Outcomes” player, meaning strikeouts, walks and home runs. In other words, the stuff fielders have no impact on. For a young player (Dunn is 24 this season) to be such an extreme 3TO hitter is pretty rare throughout baseball history.

Take a look at how Dunn ranks among all players in baseball history with at least 900 plate appearances through age-23 in regard to the Three True Outcomes…

Walks Per Plate Appearance
Frank Thomas             .194
Ted Williams             .189
Charlie Keller           .170
ADAM DUNN                .168
Eddie Mathews            .153
Eddie Yost               .150
Joe Morgan               .147
Rickey Henderson         .146
Harlond Clift            .146
Mickey Mantle            .145

The top 10 walkers includes Dunn, four Hall of Famers, one future first-ballot Hall of Famer, and another guy who I think should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer but (sadly) probably won’t be. And then you’ve got Eddie Yost, who is one of the great walkers in baseball history, and two other guys who had good but not great careers.

Strikeouts Per At-Bat
Pete Incaviglia          .337
Larry Hisle              .329
ADAM DUNN                .319
Dean Palmer              .319
Reggie Jackson           .294
Bobby Bonds              .292
Willie Crawford          .280
Troy Glaus               .279
Sammy Sosa               .277
Rick Monday              .276

As you might expect, the strikeout leaders are a much less star-studded group. Reggie Jackson is the lone Hall of Famer, though Sammy Sosa will very likely join him there one day. Aside from those two, this is basically a list of good-to-very good players.

Home Runs Per At-Bat
Eddie Mathews            .073
Bob Horner               .067
Juan Gonzalez            .067
Harmon Killebrew         .066
Albert Pujols            .064
Reggie Jackson           .063
ADAM DUNN                .062
Darryl Strawberry        .061
Manny Ramirez            .060
Ted Williams             .060

The home run top 10 is pretty interesting. You’ve got four Hall of Famers and two of today’s top sluggers. Then you’ve also got Juan Gonzalez who, while being very overrated, has been a very good hitter for a long time. Darryl Strawberry was perhaps headed towards a Hall of Fame career before everything went downhill. And, finally, Bob Horner, who started his career extremely fast and extremely well, and then was out of baseball at age-30.

By ranking 4th, 3rd and 7th, Adam Dunn is the only player to appear in the top 10 of all the Three True Outcomes rankings through the age of 23. Because of that, I think it’s safe to say that no player in baseball history has gotten off to a better start on his Three True Outcomes career than Adam Dunn.

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