Adam Dunn arrived in the Major Leagues in 2001. Since then, he has led the major leagues in both walks (1,172) and strikeouts (2,046) and is third in home runs (408), and his career stands as something of the perfect example of the Three True Outcomes. Of the 7,256 times he’s walked up to the plate, 3,702 of those PAs (51%) have ended without defensive involvement. Dunn has perfected the slow pitch softball style of baseball and turned that skillset into a pretty effective big league career.
And now, at age 33, Dunn is participating in an experiment to become an entirely new kind of hitter. Two weeks in, and it’s hard to call the experiment anything other than a total failure.
Back in spring training, Dunn told the world that this change was coming:
“I’m fighting myself over this,” Dunn said, “because I don’t want to give up something that I do very well, like walks and get deep in counts, to something in the past I haven’t done very well, and that’s being more aggressive early on.”
Dunn is correct that he hasn’t historically been an aggressive hitter. He’s swung at just 41.1% of the pitches he’s been thrown since 2002 — the first year BIS recorded plate discipline data — and has only swung at the first pitch of an at-bat 27% of the time. Both of those marks are below the league average, and support what we already knew; Dunn has been a selective hitter whose strategy has been to get himself into hitter’s counts and then swing for the moon.
The 2013 version of Adam Dunn doesn’t resemble that guy at all. Not only has Dunn swung at 50% of the pitches he’s been thrown — a career high by a mile — he’s also swung at the first pitch in 46% of his plate appearances, the seventh highest first-pitch swing rate in all of baseball. For context, Pablo Sandoval is swinging at 48% of first pitches, and Josh Hamilton is swinging at 49%. On the first pitch, Adam Dunn has essentially become an undisciplined hack.
Of the 22 times Dunn has swung at the first pitch this year, he’s put the ball in play 10 times, resulting in one double, one home run, and eight outs. The other 12 swings have either been whiffs or fouls, putting him in an 0-1 count for the at-bat. Combining the outs with the strikes, Dunn’s early aggressiveness has resulted in a poor outcome 91% of the time.
This shift in approach has had a pretty significant effect on the types of counts where Dunn’s at-bats end. Here’s a breakdown of the counts in which he has either walked, struck out, or put the ball in play this year, compared to his career averages.
|First Pitch||10||22%||First Pitch||663||9%|
|1-0 Count||1-0 Count||359||5%|
|2-0 Count||2-0 Count||159||2%|
|3-0 Count||3-0 Count||341||5%|
|0-1 Count||4||9%||0-1 Count||372||5%|
|1-1 Count||2||4%||1-1 Count||452||6%|
|2-1 Count||3||7%||2-1 Count||353||5%|
|3-1 Count||6||13%||3-1 Count||503||7%|
|0-2 Count||4||9%||0-2 Count||451||6%|
|1-2 Count||5||11%||1-2 Count||936||13%|
|2-2 Count||7||15%||2-2 Count||1148||16%|
|Full Count||5||11%||Full Count||1519||21%|
Since there’s a lot of small sample noise there, maybe a summary chart will do a better job of showing the shift here.
|Batter Ahead||14||30%||Batter Ahead||3234||45%|
|Even Count||19||41%||Even Count||2263||31%|
|Pitcher Ahead||13||28%||Pitcher Ahead||1759||24%|
Finally, one more table, showing not just the counts that at-bats ended on, but the percentage of hitter’s counts that Dunn has gotten into in the first place, per Baseball Reference.
Adam Dunn used to get into a lot of good hitter’s counts. 2013 Adam Dunn no longer does that.
Moving at-bats from hitter’s counts to even counts is simply a net loss, but this change isn’t solely about swinging at different times during an at-bat. In the piece linked above, Dunn notes that he’s also changing the trigger that tells him to swing or take.
“We’re going to focus on an area and not a pitch,” Dunn said. “Normally I focus on a pitch, like I know a guy’s tendencies. So early in the count, I’ll try to get to a certain count because I know 70 percent of the time he throws a changeup in 1-0 counts, stuff like that.
“Instead of looking for a specific pitch in a specific location, I’m going to try this spring to look at a location early and let it fly.”
“What it really will require is practice,” he said, “like literally telling myself, ‘I’m swinging at this pitch until my eyes tell me otherwise,’ as opposed to saying, ‘If I don’t see fastball, shut it down.’
“It’s going to be hard. I’m not going to lie to you. But we’ve got a long spring, so it will be good.”
While previously Dunn would select based on pitch type, now he’s keying off location. Or, at least, that’s what he said the plan was. Thanks to the wonderful PITCHF/x tool from TexasLeaguers, we can actually see that he’s following through with this plan. Here’s a plot of every pitch he’s taken this year.
You can probably spot the giant hole there. Middle-in and slightly elevated, Dunn has swung at every pitch he’s been thrown this year. Dunn said he wanted to look at a location at let it fly; it seems pretty clear what location he’s looking for. From BaseballHeatMaps, here’s Dunn’s swing rates against RHPs compared the league average for that part of the zone.
And here’s that same heat map, just for 2008-2012.
Dunn has basically adapted his approach to swing at anything on the inner half as long as it isn’t at the knees. Instead of studying pitcher tendencies and trying to get into counts where he can guess what’s coming, he’s now just looking for a ball middle in at any point in the at-bat.
And the results have been disastrous. He’s hitting .136/.174/.295, good for just a .206 wOBA. Because he’s falling behind more often than he used to, the more aggressive approach hasn’t really trimmed his strikeout rate, but it’s basically eliminated his ability to draw walks; he has just two bases on balls so far. Sacrificing walks for more hits and more home runs could be a worthy trade-off if that was the result, but what Dunn has really accomplished so far is trading walks for outs.
At some point in the near future, Dunn is going to have to make a choice. He’s had a solid 11 year career as a selective hitter who got into hitter’s counts and keyed off a specific pitch, and now he’s had a pretty terrible two weeks as an aggressive hitter who swings at anything middle-in and elevated. Perhaps with more work at it, Dunn will make the necessary adjustments and get back to being a productive hitter. But, realistically, he was already a productive hitter. There isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that Aggressive Dunn will be significantly more productive than Patient Dunn, and given the cost the team is paying while he attempts to make this shift, it’s hard to see how Dunn’s transformation is actually going to be a net positive for the White Sox.
If he was a 21-year-old kid with a bright future ahead of him, I think you could make a pretty decent case for adapting his approach at the plate. Dunn, though, is a 33-year-old with a long history of Major League success doing things the way he was doing them, and he’s only under contract with the White Sox for 2013 and 2014, so the White Sox are making a short-term-for-long-term trade-off with a player that they may not even retain beyond next season. It might have been an experiment with good intentions, but even though 46 plate appearances is an awfully small sample, it’s probably getting close to time for everyone involved to consider the exercise a failure and let Dunn get back to what he has always been good at.
If the White Sox wanted an aggressive power hitter, they shouldn’t have signed Adam Dunn to begin with. That’s just not what he’s ever been, and trying to make him an aggressive power hitter at age-33 is looking like a pretty big mistake.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.