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In Praise of Adam Dunn

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There isn't much going on in Pirate-land today that I want to write about, but I enjoyed this Jerry Crasnick article about Adam Dunn. Is there a player in baseball as good as Dunn who takes as much heat for his on-field performance? Manny Ramirez, maybe, for his indifferent defense and baserunning mishaps, although those criticisms wouldn't be nearly so loud if they weren't consistent with a larger narrative about his flightiness and attitude issues. Alex Rodriguez, probably. But Dunn ranks right up there, particularly when one considers that he's never had Scott Boras, big-city media, or any off-field incidents, any of which might amplify criticism of his on-field performance.

It's bizarre, really. Dunn doesn't hit for average or play defense, but lots of star players escape criticism despite similar limitations. David Ortiz can't play defense at all; Ichiro doesn't really hit for power; Trevor Hoffman or Francisco Rodriguez can't pitch seven innings in a game. Fans and writers intuitively recognize that the other skills these players possess are strong enough to outweigh the ones they lack. 

Not so for Dunn, even though he's incredibly good at hitting homers and drawing walks. An interesting excerpt:

Statistical bloggers revere him for his on-base ability and power, but the purists wonder whether he could squeeze more from his game by shortening up and making more consistent contact. Sure, an out is an out is an out, but even Dunn realizes that it might benefit him to put a few more balls in play.

"I'm more frustrated than anybody who thinks they're frustrated about me," he said. "I do some things that I just don't understand. How could I possibly strike out that many times? I really don't know.

"Some people have told me, 'Why don't you swing at the first pitch? To me, I'm not doing the team justice if I do that. In certain situations, yeah, I'll swing at the first pitch. But the goal is usually to get the starting pitcher out of there and get into the bullpen. That's what I try to do -- work the count, and when I get a good pitch to hit, don't miss it."

The notion that Dunn might try to make better contact by shortening his swing reminds me of the once-popular argument that Ichiro could hit 20 or 25 homers a year if he only wanted to. Maybe, but at what cost? It's not as if Ichiro keeps the ball in the park just for giggles. 

So what would be the cost if Dunn shortened up? Who knows, but probably fewer homers and many fewer walks. There's no way to know unless you try, I suppose, but why would you try? If you're Jim Colborn, why would you mess with Zach Duke's mechanics after he'd just posted a 1.81 ERA in his rookie season? You'd probably only want to mess with Dunn if you felt what he was already doing was somehow deficient.

It isn't. The usually-excellent Crasnick describes Dunn's time in Arizona as a "mixed bag." If he's referring to the Diamondbacks' performance since Dunn was acquired, then point taken, but that's not what he says. Dunn has a .452 OBP since being traded. There's just no way to post a .452 OBP over several weeks and not help your team. Dunn also ranks first in the majors in walks and second in homers.

I suspect the negative feelings Dunn seems to generate come mostly from aesthetics--strikeouts are ugly outs, and never mind that 18 of the top 40 hitters in baseball by OPS have struck out at least 100 times this season already. It's not especially rational to criticize Dunn for the kinds of outs he makes, but I understand it; we all have viewpoints that come from irrational feelings. 

Personally, I have the opposite perspective, having watched years and years of Pirates baseball and seen hundreds and hundreds of one-pitch groundouts. I'd much rather see a player take a bunch of pitches, work the count and ultimately fail, than to swing at everything and make his outs by making weak contact. So I guess I'm a fan of Three True Outcomes baseball. But I can still acknowledge that, say, Vlad Guerrero is a terrific player. One would think that in Dunn's case, the First Pitch Swinging aesthetes could do the same.