The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Batch two of my completist series features a pair of 400-homer sluggers who spent their final four years as teammates on the South Side of Chicago, that after having briefly crossed paths — in an organizational sense, at least — in Cincinnati in 1998. While both routinely put up big home run and RBI totals — reaching 40 homers eight times between them, and driving in 100 runs 12 times — their lack of speed and subpar defense made for surprisingly low WAR totals that quashed any real debate about Hallworthiness. Which isn’t to say that they didn’t have their moments during compelling careers…
|Player||Pos||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||H||HR||SB||AVG/OBP/SLG||OPS+|
At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, Adam Dunn was built like a football player — and he was, to the point of signing a letter of intent to play for the University of Texas — but he could pulverize a baseball as well. In a 14-year career (2001-14), “The Big Donkey” reached 40 homers in a season six times, and 30 in a season another three times; he homered with a frequency topped by just a dozen players in baseball history. An exceptionally disciplined hitter, Dunn wore pitchers out, walking at least 100 times in a season eight times. He racked up his share of strikeouts as well, at one point breaking Bobby Bonds‘ single-season record, and in fact retired as the King of the Three True Outcomes — the player who either homered, walked, or struck out in the highest share of plate appearances of anybody with at least 4,000 career plate appearances, and the exemplar of a set of trends that for better or worse has come to define 21st century baseball.
Born on November 9, 1979 in Houston, Texas, Dunn began playing baseball at age four, hitting left-handed despite throwing right-handed. He was more taken by football, and given his height, strong arm, and natural athleticism, he developed into a talented quarterback, throwing for over 5,000 yards in high school. As a baseball player, he was so feared as a slugger that he was frequently intentionally walked. Though he had enough talent to be considered a top-10 pick in baseball, his preference for the gridiron, including a commitment to play QB for Texas, led teams to shy away. Nonetheless, the Reds chose him in the second round of the 1998 draft; by the terms of their deal, Dunn was allowed to go back to Austin in time to prepare for football season, though he wound up redshirting as a freshman. With Major Applewhite installed as the starter and Chris Simms waiting in the wings, coach Mack Brown tried to move Dunn to tight end, but he didn’t like the move. In the spring of his sophomore year, he decided he’d had enough, and committed himself full-time to baseball.
Despite spending two seasons in the A-level Midwest League in 1999 and 2000, Dunn landed on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects lists twice, peaking at number 33 in 2001. He made his major league debut on July 20 of that season, going 1-for-3 with a single off the Marlins’ Matt Clement. Seven days later, he collected his first major league homer, also at Clement’s expense, and in August he set an NL record for homers by a rookie in a single month, with 12. He finished the year with 19 homers in 66 games while batting .262/.371/.578, and drew mention in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, though Albert Pujols won unanimously.
Though Dunn’s home run output only increased to 26 in 158 games in 2002, and his WAR from 2.2 to 2.3, he drew 128 walks (against 170 strikeouts), hit .249/.400/.454, and made his first All-Star team. A sprained left thumb cost him six weeks and considerable productivity in 2003, but he rebounded in a big way in 2004, blasting 46 homers (second only to Adrián Beltré’s 48) while batting .266/.388/.569 (147 OPS+) en route to 4.7 WAR. Unlike a few other players — Rob Deer (1987), José Hernández (2001), and Preston Wilson (2002) — who approached Bonds’ 1970 total of 189 strikeouts but played sparingly, or not at all, to avoid claiming the ignominious record, Dunn kept going. He struck out three times in a September 30 game against the Cubs’ Mark Prior, tying and then breaking the mark. “At least that is one Bonds I have a record over,” a good-humored Dunn said, adding, “I’m the only person that actually has claim to that record. Now I’m just going to try to add on to it before the year is over.”
That season began a streak of five straight in which Dunn homered at least 40 times; he hit exactly that many annually from 2005-08 while batting a combined .245/.381/.524 (130 OPS+) and averaging 112 walks and 173 strikeouts; he led the league in the latter category two more times in that span, and in the former once. His value took a significant hit as his range and arm strength both decreased, and repeated attempts to pick up first base failed. He was a combined 82 runs below average afield in that four-year stretch, and averaged just 1.4 WAR. With free agency looming, he was traded to the Diamondbacks for three players (most notably pitcher Micah Owings) on August 11, 2008.
When Dunn hit the free agent market that winter, he received a muted reception despite his prodigious power output. Ultimately, he signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Nationals, whose general manager, Jim Bowden, had been the Reds’ GM when Dunn was drafted. Though he bopped 38 homers and hit for a 144 OPS+, Dunn’s defense was so bad — -43 runs according to Defensive Runs Saved, including an unholy -23 in just 67 games at first base while filling in for the injured Nick Johnson — that he finished with a net -0.4 WAR. In doing so, he set records for the most homers and highest OPS+ by a player who finished with a subzero WAR, as well as the lowest single-season defensive WAR (-5.2) ever, while coming within one run of matching Mike Jacobs (2008) for the lowest single-season DRS by a first baseman. He was back in the black in 2010, with 38 homers (again), a 138 OPS+, and 2.5 WAR despite DH-quality defensive work (-11 DRS) at first base.
A free agent again, Dunn finally landed in the American League via a four-year, $56 million deal with the White Sox, and while he was allowed to gravitate to his natural position (DH), his season proved to be a nightmare. Between a new circuit’s worth of pitchers, frequent infield shifts, and a strikeout rate that spiked from 30.7% to 35.7%, he hit an abysmal .159/.292/.277 with just 11 homers in 496 PA; that was six short of officially qualifying for the batting title, but his batting average was nonetheless the lowest of any post-1900 player with at least 400 PA. His -2.9 WAR didn’t set a record, but it ranks as the 12th-worst of all-time by Baseball-Reference’s reckoning (Jerry Royster’s -4.0 1977 season is the record).
Dunn’s season left him nowhere to go but up. He homered 41 times, made his second All-Star team, and was worth 1.6 WAR in 2012 despite batting just .204/.333/.468 and striking out a league-high 222 times, one short of Mark Reynolds‘ still-standing record; this time, Dunn sat out the season’s final day. From there the returns diminished; he was back to replacement level in 2013, and only slightly better (0.5 WAR) in ’14. The latter season did produce a memorable moment on August 5, when he entered a game in which the White Sox were getting smoked 15-0 by the Rangers and — harkening back to his high school days on the mound — pitched an inning, allowing one run.
Traded to the A’s on August 31, Dunn appeared as though he would finally get a chance to end the longest active postseason drought of any player, but for the AL Wild Card game, A’s manager Bob Melvin left him on the bench despite the Royals starting righty James Shields. While the game lasted 12 rather wild innings, he never got his shot. He had hinted at retirement late in the season, but didn’t make it official until the following January.
Five years after retiring, Dunn still sits atop the list, but someday, kids like Joey Gallo (59.3% through 1,559 PA), Aaron Judge (54.1% through 1,718 PA), and Miguel Sanó (54.1% through 2,051 PA) might just blow past him.
Though he was traded twice before getting a foothold in the majors, Paul Konerko found stability on the South Side. In 16 seasons as a member of the White Sox — the last nine as team captain — he hit 30 or more homers seven times, made six All-Star teams, and played a pivotal role in ending the franchise’s 88-year championship drought. “Paulie” became a legend in Chicago, and gained renown for his cerebral approach to hitting and his ability to punish fastballs.
Konerko was born on March 5, 1976 in Providence, Rhode Island, but his family moved to Norwich, Connecticut, when he was five, and to Scottsdale, Arizona, when he was 10. He starred as a catcher at Chapparal High School, batting .564 with 12 homers and 50 RBI as a senior while leading the team to a state championship. “The first time you saw him swing a bat, you knew he had a chance to be a hitter,” recalled Jerry Dawson, his coach at Chapparal, in 2014. The Dodgers chose Konerko with the 13th pick of the 1994 draft, between the Red Sox taking Nomar Garciaparra and the Mariners tabbing Jason Varitek. Eddie Bane, then serving as a special assistant to the general manager of the Dodgers, had his eye on Konerko from the time he was 13 years old.
Konerko spent his first two professional seasons behind the plate, but his defense had enough question marks relative to his bat that the Dodgers moved him to first base, and even experimented with him at third. Regardless of position, he made the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list four times, peaking at number two in 1998; he had made his major league debut the previous September 8, collecting a pinch-single off the Marlins’ Dennis Cook and getting into five more games that fall. With 1992 NL Rookie of the Year Eric Karros starting the ’98 season on the disabled list due to late March knee surgery, Konerko was the Dodgers’ Opening Day first baseman; he spent about three weeks in that role, and didn’t hit much there or while playing third base or left field, though he did tear up Triple-A Albuquerque upon returning. On July 4, 1998, the Dodgers traded him and pitching prospect Dennys Reyes to the Reds for All-Star closer Jeff Shaw (father of Travis), who was under control through 2001 on a very club-friendly extension.
For as big a coup as that deal should have been for GM Jim Bowden, the Reds judged incumbent Sean Casey to be the better first baseman, and used Konerko in just 26 games (nine at third base) over the course of the regular season. On November 11, they traded him to the White Sox straight up for center fielder Mike Cameron, who would spend just one year in Cincinnati before being flipped as part of the Ken Griffey Jr. trade. With first baseman Wil Cordero reaching free agency and Frank Thomas already spending more time at DH than first, the 23-year-old Konerko finally had a clear path to a job. He seized the opportunity, hitting .294/.352/.511 (116 OPS+) with 24 homers and 2.3 WAR.
That modest level of production was a bit above Konkero’s baseline over the next five seasons. He hit .281/.349/.488 (114 OPS+) over that timespan while averaging 28 homers and 96 RBI but just 1.5 WAR; subpar defense, baserunning, and double-play avoidance — adding up to a combined -8 runs per year during this stretch — took a bite out of his value, and he was neither powerful enough nor patient enough to offset that. He was particularly dreadful in 2003 (.234/.305/.399, -0.6 WAR) due to an early season slump, but he rebounded from that to set a career highs with 41 homers and 117 RBI while batting .277/.359/.535 in 2004.
The White Sox had won the AL Central in 2000, but they were swept by the Mariners in the Division Series; Konerko went 0-for-9 with a walk. He got another chance in 2005, on the heels of a 40-homer, 136 OPS+, 4.0 WAR regular season during which he made his second All-Star team and the White Sox won 99 games, their most since 1983. He homered twice during the Division Series against the defending champion Red Sox, with his two-run sixth-inning shot off Tim Wakefield in Game 3 providing the go-ahead runs as they finished off a series sweep. He added a pair of homers and a series-high seven RBI in the ALCS against the Angels, earning Series MVP honors while Chicago won its first pennant since 1959. In the World Series against the Astros, Konerko mashed a grand slam off Chad Qualls in Game 2, and clutched the throw from Juan Uribe for the final out of Game 4 as the White Sox won their first championship since 1917.
A free agent after the season ended, Konerko agreed to return to the White Sox just five weeks later, via a five-year, $60 million deal, spurning a $65 million offer from the Orioles as well as a $60 million offer from the Angels. Manager Ozzie Guillen named him team captain the following spring. Konerko had his ups and downs during that deal, with All-Star seasons at its bookends and an injury-wracked, 0.9 WAR campaign at its center; it was during that otherwise forgettable 2008 season that he helped the White Sox win the AL Central by hitting .294.405/.622 over the final two months. He homered twice in the Division Series against the Rays, but the White Sox lost in four games.
Konerko’s best season during that run was 2010, during which he set a career high with 4.7 WAR while batting .312/.393/.584 with 39 homers and 111 RBI; his batting average ranked eighth in the league, his on-base percentage sixth, his slugging percentage and 160 OPS+ fourth. He finished fifth in that year’s AL MVP voting, as high as he ever would place. He re-upped with the White Sox for three years and $37.5 million, and made All-Star teams in 2011 and ’12, albeit while totaling just 4.8 WAR and sharing first base and DH duties with Adam Dunn. He was well below replacement level in his final two seasons, though a September 2014 fracture in his left hand stole his thunder, both literally and figuratively, in the final month of his career. While he didn’t retire with Jeter-like fanfare, Konerko did get a classy farewell tour, and the White Sox retired his number 14, with owner Jerry Reinsdorf hinting at further honors. “Don’t be surprised if you see a statue out there for him, too,” said the owner, and on September 27, 2014, the day before Konerko’s final game, the Sox unveiled one designed to evoke that World Series grand slam. It’s one of nine statues placed within Guaranteed Rate Field that are dedicated to individuals pivotal in White Sox history, along with those of Hall of Famers Charles Comiskey, Luis Aparicio, Harold Baines, Carlton Fisk, Nellie Fox, and Thomas as well as Minnie Miñoso and Billy Pierce. Not Cooperstown, but good company just the same.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.