If Jayson Stark was writing this, he’d start by telling you how many National League pitching staffs have a better OBP than Adam Dunn. If Tim Kurkjian were at the keyboard he’d say the last time a player hit under .180 and struck out more than 150 times was in 1991. Who was that player? You guessed it, Rob Deer. I’m going to start to by saying I can’t believe that Adam Dunn is hitting .159. It seems impossible, and yet Dunn’s season is actually getting worse, not better. He hit .136 in June, and has posted a .119 clip in July. A one-time base on balls machine, Dunn’s OBP has dipped to .290. He’s simply having one of the worst seasons ever for an everyday player. Factor in a run of seven straight seasons with at least 38 homers (he’s on pace for 14 this year), and the monster free agent deal he signed in Chicago and Dunn’s season goes from a curiosity to downright sad.
Sad in the sporting sense. Dunn’s contract is guaranteed, of course. He’ll be all right in the long run, but I wonder what kind of mental toll getting 10 hits a month is taking on him. The White Sox just keep running him out there, too. Last night he hit clean-up and went 0-2 with a couple of walks. Over the weekend I read a few stories about Dunn’s year. For the first time he hinted that the frustration of the year has brought about thoughts of quitting. He seems torn, because he doesn’t want to embarrass himself, but he genuinely loves to play. I suppose that being a professional athlete must make one a bit more immune to feeling doubt, or at least more capable of dealing with it, but surely this year has been the ultimate test for Dunn.
When Dunn started slowly the popular theory was that he wasn’t comfortable being a DH. Dunn had always been a National League player, and had expressed a desire to stay in the NL, despite diminishing defensive skills. He followed the money to the White Sox, but he seems to left his talent in the National League. One popular comparison for Dunn has been Pat Burrell, who struggled through a season in Tampa Bay, went 2 for 25 last May and was finally released. He never got comfortable in the DH role, but rescued by San Francisco he enjoyed a modest revival. Dunn’s contract, however, makes it unlikely he’d find salvation in the National League anytime soon. And, you’d have to think that DH’ing isn’t the only problem.
It’s hard to find baseball parallels for Dunn. At least for someone who is 31 years old. Mike Schmidt hit 35 homers in 1987 and a little more than a year later was out of baseball, but he was in his late thirties and the numbers that caused him to retire look gaudy in comparison to Dunn’s year. The name that popped up in the stories I read about Dunn was Dale Murphy. Murphy won back-to-back MVPs at ages 26 and 27 was very productive for a few more years, but then suddenly at age 32 he hit .226, and never truly bounced back. His power still lingered a bit, though, and that’s what even more troubling about Dunn.
When you talk about guys hitting well under .200, Rob Deer is the name you land on. I wasn’t making up that stat in the opening paragraph. In 1991 Deer hit .179, but managed 25 homers. For a lot of free-swinging sluggers, the power is usually the last thing to go. And, Dunn is certainly free-swinging. He’s already 15th all-time in punch-outs, he’ll likely finish the year 12th, and if he played out his contract in Chicago as a full-time player, he’d be taking a shot at Reggie Jackson’s all-time mark. If he played until he was near 40, like most of the men of the list, Dunn would obliterate the record book, becoming the first to pass 3,000 K’s. With all those strikeouts there used to be power, and on-base numbers, but no longer.
It’s a fall so sharp, that it almost has to be mental to a certain extent, and that’s why the only comparisons I can think of are in golf. I suppose Dunn has become the hitting version of Steve Sax’s throws to first base, but when looking for sharp, inexplicable declines, golf is always the place to go. Chip Beck, Ian Baker-Finch, David Duval, these are the guys that could really feel Dunn’s pain right now. Nothing exposes a lack of confidence like golf, except perhaps hitting clean-up. Golf gives you plenty of time to rebound, though. Chip Beck has been slogging in the depths for nearly two decades, but last week he made an appearance on the leaderboard at the Senior British Open. Dunn doesn’t have that luxury of time, if you could call it a luxury.
If Dunn’s cold streak extends into next year it may be a race to see whether he or the White Sox give up first. There will be 3 years and a lot of money left on that deal, but you can’t have someone like Dunn in the middle of your lineup. Could be bound for the Minors? Will he really retire? Could be a real sad ending for Adam Dunn, or maybe he’s just setting himself up to win the 2012 Comeback Player of the Year. Either way, it’s pretty uncharted territory.