Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox throws his bat after striking out against the Toronto Blue Jays at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Adam Dunn suffered the worst one-year decline of any slugger in the last ten years. Will he make a comeback in 2012?
Adam Dunn could thump. And mash. And pound. Oh, could he thump.
Adam Dunn could work the count. Take a walk. Get on base. Oh, could he work the count.
Adam Dunn could strike out. Oh, could he strike out.
And then it stopped. Not the strikeouts. Those kept coming. So did his ability to work the count, to some extent. But the thumping and the mashing. They just stopped.
And no one really knows why.
With the Reds and then the Nationals, Dunn hit more home runs between 2004 and 2010 than any other National League player not named Pujols. And the numbers are closer than you might think. Albert Pujols hit 294 home runs in those seven seasons; Dunn hit 282. If, like me, you rely on calculators and stuff, that's more than 40 home runs on average per season for seven consecutive seasons.
Dunn walked more times than other National League player in those same seven seasons. 750 walks, 56 more than Pujols.
Of course, Dunn also struck out more than any other player in the National League, and it wasn't particularly close. 1,262 strike outs, 227 more than Ryan Howard, although Howard did play 233 fewer games.
Dunn is the classic "three true outcomes" player. Unfortunately, in 2011, it was more like "three true outs."
Dunn's struggles in 2011 -- his first season with the Chicago White Sox -- were well-documented, here and elsewhere. Although Dunn never hit for average, he still posted a respectable career batting average of .250 prior to 2011. That dropped to .159 last season. .159. That's lower than the batting average of fifteen National League pitchers last season with at least 60 at-bats.
But the power outage is even more shocking. His career slugging percentage through the 2010 season was .523. In 2011, it was .277.
.277. As a slugging percentage.
And he ended the season with only 11 home runs.
Dunn did continue to walk at close to his career rate. Through 2010, his walk rate was 16.3 percent. Last season it was 15.1 percent. Which probably says more about the pitchers in the American League Central than anything else.
Possible explanations abound.
(1) Dunn started to decline in 2010 (which is true) and at 31 years old, he simply declined faster than expected.
(2) Dunn he was particularly unlucky in 2011, as evidenced by a BABIP that was 89 points lower than in 2010 and 50 points lower than his career average.
(3) Dunn had difficultly adjusting to being a full-time designated hitter after moving over from the National League. An adjustment that wasn't anticipated by Dunn or others.
(4) Dunn had a difficulty adjusting to American League pitching.
(5) U.S. Cellular Field, where Dunn played his home games, has a park factor of 108 for strikeouts for left-handed batters, meaning that LH batters strike out 8 percent more frequently in that ballpark as compared to the average yard. Nationals Park, where Dunn played home games in 2009 and 2010, has a park factor of 94 for strikeouts for LH batters. So that's a 14 percent swing from one season to the next. On the other hand, U.S. Cellular's park factor for left handed batters to hit home runs is 32 percent greater than National Park.
(6) Dunn never fully recovered from an appendectomy performed on April 5, just as the season was getting underway. Doctors performed the surgery laparoscopically, which is safer and easier on the body. But recovery time is still one to three weeks, with a full recovery taking up to six weeks. Dunn sat out only seven games and never went on the disabled list. In fact, over his eleven-year career, Dunn spent time on the DL only once, back in 2003. He's otherwise been incredibly healthy.
(7) Dunn crumbled under the weight of his 4-year/$56 million contract with the White Sox. Or the expectations surrounding it.
It could have been any of these things. Or some of them. Or all of them. Or none of them.
We don't know. The White Sox don't know. Dunn doesn't know.
Dunn recently told the Chicago Sun-Times:
I don't want to make excuses. There are a few things that I probably look back and say, "I shouldn't have done this or that," a few things I probably would have done a little differently, but it's over with. I can't take it back. I don't want to say anything that would sound like excuses. That's the last thing I want because there are no excuses. I should have been able to get out of it, and I couldn't.
What we do know is this: There's only been one other "slugger" -- one other "three true outcomes" player -- in the last ten years to have a one-year decline close to what Dunn experienced in 2011. One.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that the slugger bounced back the next season to post numbers better than his career averages.
That slugger was Jim Thome.
In 2005, in his age-34 season, Thome hit .207/.360/.352 for the Phillies. This came after a season in which he hit .274/.396/.571 and 42 home runs. Granted, Thome only played 59 games in 2005, with two stints on the DL -- one for 15 days with a strained lower back, and one for 60 days with elbow surgery. It seems likely that his injuries, and his sporadic playing time, contributed significantly to his poor production.
But at age 35, he did bounce back, posting a line of .288/.416/.598 and hitting 42 home runs. For the White Sox. As the designated hitter.
Yes, David Ortiz had a down year in 2009 and came roaring back in 2010 and 2011. But his "down year" production was .238/.332/.462 -- no where near the power outage Dunn experienced. And yes, Carlos Pena batted .196 in 2010 for the Rays, but he still slugged .407 and had an on-base percentage of .325. No where near Dunn's numbers from 2011.
What will become of Adam Dunn in 2012? I don't know. You don't know. Nobody knows.
But Dunn is ready to get started. More from the Sun-Times:
Dunn, who had never hit during the offseason before this one, said he's hitting four times a week.
"I just know that my body feels good. I feel healthy. I feel great. I'm ready to get back. I'm just ready to get going," [said Dunn.]
The good news for Dunn is that so many factors potentially contributed to his steep decline that addressing just one or two might get him close to his pre-2011 form. He's fully recovered from his appendectomy. He's adjusted to his role as the DH. He's adjusted to American League pitchers. He's already suffered the angst of his big contract.
And there's at least the history of Jim Thome's 2005 season, and his 2006 comeback, to give Dunn hope. Which is good, because he'll need it.