Adam Dunn Rediscovering Identity

Truth be told, I don’t know all that much about Chris Cornell. Were I in charge of a massive Chris Cornell museum, I’d constantly be thinking to myself, “I don’t know how this happened.” But I know a few years ago, Cornell went solo and released an album that was a complete departure from his previous music. It sold, but people didn’t really like it that much, and before long Cornell was back to being Cornell again. Soundgarden released “King Animal” in 2012 and the solo album is just this weird thing that people remember. Maybe Cornell had to try it, just to see.

A little under a month ago, Dave Cameron wrote an article here titled “Adam Dunn’s Failed Experiment.” Dunn, of course, is one of the first guys you think of when you’re playing three-true-outcome free association, as he built a solid career upon dingers, walks, and strikeouts. Dunn was always a patient sort, but he got off to a miserable start in 2013, and that was accompanied by a curious uptick in aggressiveness. Cameron highlighted a quote showing that Dunn was going to be more aggressive on purpose. Dunn was pretty good in 2012, all things considered, and no one would’ve predicted him to try to change things up at 33, but he made a change and the early results were deplorable.

Prepare yourselves now for a hike through the thick forest of arbitrary endpoints. Over 17 games, through April 21, Dunn posted a .421 OPS, with three walks and 26 strikeouts. Though Dunn didn’t play on Wednesday, since April 22 he’s played 13 games, and he’s posted a .768 OPS with nine walks and 15 strikeouts. That says a little, but not a lot, and the same goes for the following quote from Rick Hahn:

“[Dunn] tried to do some things differently early in terms of his approach,” said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn. “You’ve seen in the last week or so he has drifted back to what he had been doing for the bulk of his career previously when he had this success. We are still seeing the power. We are seeing more walks recently and that’s fundamentally who he is.”

It’s easy to look at a few numbers, and to listen to a quote. It’s worth looking at more numbers, numbers that might be more telling. Do we see more evidence that Adam Dunn is more or less getting back to normal? It sure seems that way.

Time Strike% Zone% Z-Swing% O-Swing% Swing% 1stSwing%
Through 4/21 64% 52% 69% 28% 49% 43%
Since 4/22 55% 41% 59% 25% 39% 18%
2008-2013 57% 45% 62% 24% 41% 26%

It’s imperative to acknowledge how little data we’re playing with, but if any 2013 data’s going to mean anything, it’s data like this. Dunn has gone beyond halving his rate of first-pitch swings. His overall swing rate is way down, and while part of that is because his zone rate is also down, you can see a drop of ten percentage points in terms of Z-Swing%. I’m not trying to suggest that everything flipped back on April 22, but it seems like, as time has passed, Adam Dunn has gone back to batting the way he used to find most comfortable.

Dunn himself doesn’t seem to think he’s made much of an adjustment, saying he takes things day by day, and pitcher by pitcher. But then, something like this is pretty subtle at the time, and it might not feel conscious. It’s a matter of an extra swing every now and again, and not a total, dramatic change. If we take those Z-Swing rates to represent true talents, we’re talking about seven swings per ten strikes, and then six swings per ten strikes. It’s a small thing that looks bigger in a data table.

We can’t say where Dunn is going to go from here, but he’s generated good results with a more patient approach and terrible results with a more aggressive approach, so it stands to reason he’s probably going to look a lot like the familiar Adam Dunn, which would be welcome for a White Sox team that has just been humiliating itself at the plate. The White Sox don’t have a lower wRC+ than the Marlins, but they have a lower wRC+ than everybody else, and the Marlins haven’t had a healthy Giancarlo Stanton or any version of Logan Morrison. The White Sox need Dunn to hit, and other people to hit too, and Dunn’s always hit when he’s been himself.

There are some lessons here. One might be that it’s seldom a good idea to make a fundamental change to an approach that’s pretty much always worked. Dunn was established as what he was, and just because the rest of the White Sox’s lineup is pretty aggressive doesn’t mean Dunn had to work to fit in. Sometimes it’s necessary to make that sort of change, but Dunn’s numbers didn’t suggest a need. So this was curious from the get-go.

There’s the matter of not all player adjustments working out. The Mariners — who are most familiar to me — have gone through this with Dustin Ackley. Ackley showed up in the spring with a new batting stance, and he took it into the season, but he didn’t hit and then he basically reverted to what he was before. Players are frequently making changes, and they’re always publicly optimistic, since they wouldn’t be trying to make changes if they didn’t think the changes would help. But sometimes they don’t help, no matter what the players say or think or do, and so just because a guy is making an adjustment doesn’t mean we should expect it to go smoothly.

And changes are difficult to implement, especially for the established. What we can’t say for certain is that Dunn had the wrong idea. Maybe Dunn was on to something, and maybe in the long run, he would’ve succeeded as a more aggressive hitter. He might still do that. Maybe he was bound to experience some hiccups, since adjustments take time and major-league competition is really good. But when a player struggles, it’s natural for the player to go back to doing things the way he did before the struggles. This is the way it can be with hitting approaches, and this is the way it can be with pitching mechanics. It’s hard to stick with a plan when the plan isn’t working, and early on Dunn’s plan wasn’t working, even though a low BABIP suggested some real misfortune. Players usually can’t afford to stay static, not in the bigs, but development and change don’t come easy or smoothly. Dunn tried to change and it looks like he’s all but given it up after just a few weeks.

I don’t know what it would be like to live in a world in which Adam Dunn is an aggressive-swinging batsman. Dunn has long been one of baseball’s true constants, and if Dunn were to change, who else could I trust? Thankfully, it looks like Adam Dunn has rediscovered himself. Maybe he’ll still go back to the spring-training plan, but for the time being, I’m happy to embrace the familiar.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

I’d bat Dunn 2nd.