The term Three True Outcomes predates Adam Dunn, but it is a term that has been attached to him his entire MLB career. Half of his plate appearances have ended with a home run (5.6 percent), a walk (16.2 percent), or a strikeout (28.2 percent). Those home runs and walks contribute most of Dunn’s value at the plate and has made him a tantalizing talent for many an evaluator.
The major knock on him is that as well as he excels at racking up home runs and walks, he has no value in the field. Playing for the Reds, Diamondbacks and Nationals, Dunn struggled as a National League player. Without the option to place him safely off the field at designated hitter, teams tried to hide the deficiencies with his glove in left field and then at first base. Conventional wisdom suggested that Dunn’s ability would be best used at DH, but he had been vocal about his desire to remain on the field. However, Dunn changed his mind when the White Sox offered a four-year, $56 million contract.
It is fair to say no one expected Dunn’s 2011 to be so poor on an underperforming 79-83 White Sox team. His minus-3.1 WAR was the worst performance ever by a DH, which was over a win worse than the second worst seasons (Chris James and Alvin Davis, 1991). The walks kept coming, but his home run per fly ball percentage fell from 21.3 percent to 9.6 percent and his batting average fell to .159. Combine these things together and you wind up with a very poor DH who has no MLB quality skills beyond walking.
Chicago White Sox
There was a silver lining that many, including me, pointed out: His .240 batting average of balls in play, which was above .300 during his two seasons in Washington. Simple regression toward his career levels would suggest that more balls would leave the yard and more balls would hit the ground instead of being snagged in gloves.
The 2012 White Sox improved by six wins over the previous season to finish at 85-77. It can be argued that their six-game improvement was greatly affected by Dunn’s 4.8 WAR swing (reaching 1.7 WAR in 2012). He finished the season with 41 home runs and a slash line of .204/.333/.468. It was good to see the power return and the retention of walks for Dunn, but his performance was still somewhat below average for what one would hope to get out of the bat-only position of designated hitter.
Dunn simply did not make enough successful contact and had the second worst batting runs above average (as measured by Rbat) of his career with eight. That performance ties him for the second worst value in baseball history for a player who has hit 40 or more home runs:
1. Tony Batista, 2000 Blue Jays: Rbat of 0
2t. Adam Dunn, 2012 White Sox: Rbat of 8
2t. Vinny Castilla, 1996 Rockies: Rbat of 8
4t: Adam Dunn, 2006 Reds: Rbat of 9
4t: Jose Canseco, 1998 Blue Jays: Rbat of 9
6t: Curtis Granderson, 2012 Yankees: Rbat of 12
6t: Vinny Castilla, 1997 Rockies: Rbat of 12
8. Tony Armas, 1984 Red Sox: Rbat of 13
9. Greg Vaughn, 1999 Reds: Rbat of 14
10. Ryan Howard, 2008 Phillies: Rbat of 15
None of the above players were a negative with the bat, which shows how difficult it is to be detrimental to the team if one manages to send 40 balls past the fence. However, the accomplishment does not guarantee that the performance was exceptional. To put this in perspective, the median value of Rbat for the 310 40-homer seasons is 48 (most recently attained by Adrian Gonzalez in 2009), which is roughly four wins better than what Adam Dunn accomplished in 2012.
Going forward into the final two years of Dunn’s contract, there is some uncertainly as to how well he will perform. Although he improved, it was not a product of his BABIP, which was largely unchanged. His home run per fly ball percentage jumped up to 29.3 percent, an all-time high for him. Just looking at those two numbers, I still expect some regression to his career levels of .288 and 22 percent.
It should be noted, though, that we may be seeing a change in how he plays or how others play against him. Over the past four years, pitchers have been increasingly going after Dunn with two-seam fastballs increasing from 2.5 percent of the time in 2009 to 12.3 percent in 2012. This seems to relate somewhat to his ability to perform well as measured by Pitch f/x wFA values that are half of what they were when he was playing for the Nationals. These perceived struggles against fastballs may indicate a deterioration of hitting ability. It may well be that he made adjustments from 2011 to 2012 in order to perform better and that those adjustments may not be able to prevent Father Time affecting his abilities.
It appears that the White Sox will be spending a total of $30 million for the next two years on someone who at best will hold his own at designated hitter. Paying a premium for this level of production is likely not what the team had in mind when they signed him.