There are very few players in baseball that polarize the supporters of traditional and sabermetric statistics than the Cincinatti Reds’ Adam Dunn. Those who favor traditional stats look at his career .247 batting average and the tons of strikeouts he accumulates. The sabermetric crowd loves his on-base and slugging percentages and are more willing to overlook his deficiencies. If you’ve read UmpBump regularly, then you probably know that I’m pretty firmly on the sabermetric side. And no, I was not a math geek growing up. Hated it, in fact.
Anyhow, it should come as no surprise when I say that Adam Dunn just might be the most underrated hitter in baseball today and I would love to have the guy play for my New York Mets this year. But if Joel Sherman of the New York Post is correct (and when is the Post ever wrong?), that’s simply a pipe dream. Not because the Mets don’t have the pieces to get the deal done – which is probably true – but, even more disconcertingly, because they’re evaluating him using these traditional stats that do not do players like Dunn much justice:
The Mets did consider Cincinnati’s Adam Dunn, but his poor defense, historical problems in clutch situations and high strikeout rates have eliminated interest.
His defense does leave something to be desired. Regardless of whether he’s evaluated using traditional (2007 fielding percentage of .976 in left field) or sabermetric (.826 Revised Zone Rating and 31 out-of-zone plays made in 2007) numbers, Adam Dunn is a below-average left fielder. However, according to the Sherman article as well as MLBTradeRumors.com, the Mets are strongly considering Raul Ibanez of the Mariners instead. While I like the idea of bringing Ibanez into the fold, I do wonder why the question of defense doesn’t come up in this instance. His fielding percentage was pretty much identical to Dunn’s (.975) last season and his zone rating (percentage of balls that were hit into a typical left fielder’s fielding zone and was fielded cleanly) was worse at .813. Ibanez did field more out-of-zone balls (41), but put it all together and you have two fielders with similar levels of ability. If defense is an issue with Dunn, why not so for Ibanez?
Next up on the list of undue criticisms is the idea that Adam Dunn has “historical problems in clutch situations”. This is a tricky area because the word “clutch” means different things to different people and often varies in meaning depending upon the argument one’s trying to make. Statements like “he’s not clutch because he doesn’t hit with runners in scoring position”, “he’s not clutch because he doesn’t hit in the later innings in close games”, or “he’s not clutch because he didn’t hit in April/May/June/July/August/September/October when his team needed him the most” get bandied about at one’s convenience.
Unfortunately for Cincinatti fans, I can’t answer the last point because the Reds have never really needed him to perform since they haven’t finished a season over .500 since 2000, the year before Dunn made his debut (AHA! So he doesn’t make his teammates better! No, Adam Dunn does not have the supernatural ability to turn Jeff Keppinger into a 30-HR threat. You got me. Let’s move on). But let’s address the “doesn’t hit late in close games” issue first. According to ESPN.com, in close and late situations over the last three years, Adam Dunn is batting a paltry .226 to go along with 1 home run every 16.4 ABs. If you see his total numbers over the same time period, you’ll see what Sherman’s talking about, I suppose: .248 AVG and 1 HR every 13.6 ABs. So it’s true that if you use batting average and HR/AB as your standards, then yes, Dunn does not perform as well in “close and late” situations. But not many players do. Why? Because in “close and late” games, managers often employ their best relievers – many of whom whose sole job is to shut down lefty hitters like Adam Dunn. In addition (and this might not go over well with the traditional stats crowd but needs to be mentioned), we’re only looking at 230 at bats over those three years. Do you know how many variables still come into play when we evaluate one year’s worth of performance, let alone 230 ABs? For example, examining Dunn’s “close and late” numbers in 2004, he batted .323 and hit a HR every 8.5 ABs. But I’m not putting much stock in these numbers because we’re talking about a measly 93 ABs out of the 3678 ABs he’s had throughout his career. It’s way too small of a piece of the puzzle. And for the record, he has no problems hitting with runners in scoring position. Again looking at ESPN’s three-year splits, you’ll see that he’s batted .236 and homered every 13.1 AB, which considering his career totals is right around where he should be (.248 AVG, 13.6 AB/HR).
And finally, one of my biggest pet peeves – the complaints about the strikeouts. There’s no denying that since 2002, Adam Dunn has struck out 1123 times, easily the most in MLB over that span. But this is not as big a problem as many have made it seem.
I obviously think highly of on-base percentage. The point of a team’s offense is to score runs. If a team doesn’t make any outs, they score an infinite number of runs and the inning never ends. And that’s what OBP shows – a hitter’s likelihood to make an out, and an out is the most valuable commodity in a baseball game because you only get 27 of them. Simply put, despite those Ks, Adam Dunn does not make many outs. His career OBP is .381. And the guy mashes to a career SLG of .522 to boot.
The absurd amount of Ks certainly affects his batting average tremendously. You can’t get a hit unless you make contact. No arguments there. And making contact also can lead to sac flies and other “productive outs”. But making contact also creates double plays, which doesn’t get mentioned very much. Moreover, guys who make contact most frequently (i.e. does not strike out) are basically hackers. Looking at the list of players who had the fewest Ks in 2007 (minimum 500 plate appearances) gives you this list (see chart right).
These are the twelve players that struck out the least last season. Notice any similarities? For one, they don’t hit for very much power. For the most part, these are the players who weren’t genetically lucky and are the smaller guys in the game and thus had to compensate for it in other ways. Or, it could just be that they’re also sacrificing power for contact, which is also a strong possibility. How about their batting averages? With the exception of Vizquel, Theriot and Kendall, these guys all bat .285 or higher, which follows logic. A strikeout is an out 99.5% of the time (totally unofficial, but a passed ball on strike three could result in a man on first with no out recorded), but a batted ball is, roughly speaking, an out only 70% of the time. So guys who make contact will tend to have higher batting averages. (But you know what is an out 0% of the time? A homerun. And these guys don’t hit very much of them. I digress.) And like I’ve mentioned earlier, these guys also tend to be hackers. Twelve players represented here and not one of them sees four pitches per plate appearance with most of them quite a ways away from that mark. Consequently, these guys’ OBPs are heavily reliant on being able to maintain high batting averages because they don’t walk very often (confession – until Coley pointed it out, this said “wank very often”). As a whole, they averaged 3.62 pitches per plate appearance, which was below the MLB average of 3.81. And with a collective .342 OBP and .392 SLG, we’re not exactly talking about players worth drooling over. Without patience or power, these players are pretty one-dimensional offensively.
So I have to ask once more – why the negativity regarding Adam Dunn? Yes, his defense is sub-par, but he’s certainly not the worst LFer in the game. His numbers don’t improve in clutch situations, but the criticism is very much overstated. And striking out a ton doesn’t make you a bad offensive player. Adam Dunn may not make many “productive outs” but he sure as hell makes up for it by not making many outs to begin with and just being straight up productive.
Oh yeah, I forgot. He doesn’t like baseball. That’s why.
UPDATE: In the comments section, Melissa said it might be a good idea to show the numbers for the players who strike out as often as Dunn. Her wish is my command. On the right, we have the 13 hitters who topped the leaderboard in strikeouts in 2007 (I wanted 12 to match the number of players I had above, but there was a tie for 12th). There’s much more power among this group which also features 7 hitters who topped the 4 pitches per plate appearances mark with the rest not far behind. This group also includes Brandon Inge, who was among the worst hitting regulars in baseball, and who also brings down the numbers of the group. Anyhow, as a whole, these thirteen batters had a line of .264/.358/.490 and saw 4.05 pitches per plate appearance. So not only would this group hit more bombs, they will also make outs less frequently and that fact, combined with the greater P/PA number, will knock the starting pitcher out of the game faster as well.