Background: Adam Dunn was a catastrophe in 2011. You know this. Maybe you don't appreciate the depths to which he sunk. Remember all the fun people were making of Vernon Wells? Vernon Wells posted an OPS 91 points higher than Dunn. Remember all the fun people were making of the Mariners? The Mariners posted an OPS 71 points higher than Dunn. Adam Dunn played in a hitter-friendly ballpark, and was also Adam Dunn. It was a nightmare for all parties involved.
Thursday I woke up to a neat little statistic:
[Dunn] has struck out at least once in 22 straight games dating back to last season.
Thursday I actually woke up to a car alarm and an unpleasant taste in my mouth. When I turned on the computer, though, there was the Dunn statistic. It got me thinking, earlier than I usually get to thinking.
My first thought was: man, Adam Dunn must still be struggling. I think that's the automatic thought when you read about an extended strikeout streak. Strikeouts are bad, and they usually look bad. To string so many in a row ... Dunn must not be bouncing back.
But then, I just watched Adam Dunn last weekend, and he looked like he was bouncing back. A glance at his 2012 numbers suggests that he's bouncing back. So my second thought was: wait, who cares about a strikeout streak? Especially one posted by a guy who's always struck out all the time?
Streaks are fun to follow, and they're easy to trace, but they aren't as meaningful as rates. And hell, this particular streak of Dunn's goes back to 2011. We don't care about 2011. As far as we're concerned, and as far as Adam Dunn is concerned, 2011 is ancient history. It's all about 2012, and so far in 2012, Adam Dunn has struck out in 18 straight games. He's struck out 29 times in 78 plate appearances. That's a rate of 37 percent, and that's the highest mark of Dunn's career. Last year, his rate was 36 percent. Before last year, his highest rate was 31 percent.
Worrisome, even given Dunn's .869 OPS? Potentially. But his contact rate is right around where it's always been. His rate of swings at strikes and his rate of swings at balls are right around where they've always been. Adam Dunn's current strikeout rate is probably higher than it ought to be, given everything else. It should come down in time.
Something tells me the White Sox are willing to live with Dunn's strikeouts as long as the rest of his game is looking like Adam Dunn's usual game. His walk rate is high, like usual. He currently has an isolated slugging percentage -- slugging percentage minus batting average -- of .284, against a career mark of .259. The White Sox signed Dunn for his power and patience, and what they're getting in 2012 -- what they didn't get in 2011 -- are power and patience.
But okay, as long as we're here, let's talk about strikeout streaks anyway. If only to sate our curiosity. Remember spring training? This past spring training, when Adam Dunn had one strikeout when he woke up the morning of March 23? "Is Adam Dunn a contact hitter now?" is a question we improbably considered. Of course he's not. He's Adam Dunn, and Adam Dunn'll never be a contact hitter.
Dunn's streak of 22 consecutive games with a strikeout is six off the all-time record for a position player. That was posted by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, between July 23, 2008 and April 25, 2009. It began with a strikeout against Clayton Richard, and it ended with a strikeout against Brian Bass. But! On August 1, 2008, Saltalamacchia batted once, and walked. This is excluded, because we set a minimum of one at-bat and not one plate appearance, but it's worth keeping under consideration. Adam Dunn has not had such a game during his streak.
In 2007, Brad Hawpe struck out in 26 consecutive games. In 2001, Geoff Jenkins struck out in 26 consecutive games. In 2001, Mike Cameron struck out in 26 consecutive games. Those guys are tied for the all-time asterisk-free record for a position player.
What does a strikeout streak mean for performance? Sometimes something, and sometimes nothing. Saltalamacchia posted an .829 OPS during his streak. Jenkins came in at .771, while Hawpe came in at .724 and Cameron came in at .639. Kelly Shoppach struck out in 23 consecutive games between 2008 and 2009, and posted a .916 OPS. All you need is one strikeout to keep a streak alive. That leaves two or three or four other plate appearances in which to do damage.
The longest strikeout streak in history for anyone that I can find is 37 games, for Bill Stoneman between April 30, 1971 and April 21, 1972. You are most familiar with Bill Stoneman for until somewhat recently being the general manager of the Angels. He was also a pitcher, and batted .086. He slugged .098. He struck out in 53 percent of his plate appearances, and that includes the plate appearances in which he successfully or unsuccessfully attempted to bunt.
Before this one, Adam Dunn's career-long strikeout streak was 16 games, which he achieved twice. Those two streaks, and this current streak, all at least in part involved Dunn's 2011. Dunn's 2011 was so bad.
One last fun fact: Tony Gwynn's longest-ever strikeout streak was four games. He did that once, in 1986. He got up to three consecutive games six times. During that streak in 1986, he struck out against Mario Soto, Tom Browning, Bob Welch, and Rick Honeycutt. Welch actually struck him out three times in a row. That was Gwynn's only three-strikeout game. He would strike out against Welch just one other time in his life, despite 50 head-to-head showdowns. Tony Gwynn was nothing short of absurd.