Big League Stew

Ask Alex: Can Adam Dunn return to 30-homer territory?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Can Adam Dunn produce any return for the White Sox this season? (AP)

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year progresses.

The Situation: Adam Dunn was one of baseball's premier sluggers for an entire decade, hitting 354 home runs from 2001 to 2010. That's the fourth-most of all-time for a hitter's first 10 seasons, ranking just behind Albert Pujols, Eddie Mathews, and Ralph Kiner. In fifth place, with 350 homers in his first 10 seasons, is Ken Griffey, Jr. Suffice to say that Dunn was in rarefied company.

But then he signed a four-year $56 million contract with the Chicago White Sox before the 2011 season  and it all went to pot. He was the worst player in baseball last year, batting .159 in 415 at-bats, with just 11 homers. Thanks in large part to that stinkbomb, the White Sox axed their hitting coach of eight years, Greg Walker, who was a holdover from the 2005 world championship team.

The Question: Can Adam Dunn return to 30-homer territory in 2012?

The Analysis: Before 2011, Adam Dunn was one of the most consistent power hitters in baseball. He'd put up a .250 batting average, 100 walks, and 40 homers just about every year, like clockwork. He slugged exactly 40 homers for four straight years, 2005-2008, then exactly 38 home runs in both 2009 and 2010.

But 2010 contained several red flags. In particular, his sensational walk rate dropped by a third and his already high strikeout rate rose by nearly a fifth. His .356 OBP was his lowest since 2003, 42 points lower than the .398 mark he posted in 2009. Then, his OBP fell by another 64 points to a horrifying .292 last year, and it was possible to view 2010 as the beginning of a trend.

Adam Dunn is sometimes referred to as a "Three True Outcomes" player. The Three True Outcomes are home runs, walks, and strikeouts, and they are the three batting events that do not engage the defense in any way. (HBPs would fall into this category as well, but they generally aren't included in this analysis.) From 2001 to 2010, fully 49 percent of Adam Dunn's plate appearances resolved in either a home run, strikeout, or walk, one of the highest rates in all of baseball.

(It wouldn't be the absolute highest, though. The weird and wonderful Mark Reynolds has had fully 50 percent of his plate appearances end in either a home run, walk, or strikeout.)

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Dunn hit only 11 home runs for the White Sox in 2011. (AP)

Power, walks and strikeouts are sometimes referred to as "old player skills," because as players get older, they tend to increase in all three. But there's a thin line between success and failure here, because as players get older their bat speed tends to decline, and at a certain point they quite literally aren't able to hack it. That's why big slow sluggers tend to age quickly. (Remember Mo Vaughn?) The 32-year old Dunn will need to work hard with new hitting coach Jeff Manto to prove that he still has the bat speed to make a dent in major league pitching.

Unfortunately, it's not clear that he's working hard just yet. Dunn has refused to watch tape of his awful 2011 season, and he hasn't yet met the new hitting coach. "I'm not hitting for four hours five times a week," he told the Chicago Tribune at last weekend's fan convention. "I know it sounds stupid, but I'm having fun."

Yes, it does sound really stupid. That's not the type of thing you say to a fanbase you greatly disappointed the previous season. And especially after you were benched so you wouldn't reach the number of plate appearances required to place your batting average among the all-time worst.

Nevertheless, Dunn is still probably bound for some kind of dead cat bounce, as Fangraphs' Dan Wade wrote in November. Wade noted that Dunn had been victimized by extraordinarily bad luck on his BABIP, writing:

Unless Dunn simply lost his ability to identify pitches — doubtful — I don't see him having the same issues again next year... there's no reason to believe Dunn can't get his OPS back into the .850-.900 range.

The Forecast for 2012: It's possible that Dunn could hit 30 homers again, but I don't think it's likely. Perhaps the only silver lining of Dunn's horrifying 2011 is that he faces much reduced expectations for 2012. For what it's worth, Wade's prediction is very much an outlier: the Bill James Handbook predicts an OPS of .798 with 20 homers, ZiPS projects a .769 OPS with 26 homers, and CAIRO prognosticates a .796 OPS with 29 homers.

I'm often more optimistic than the regression-based projection systems, but in this case, on the whole, I think they're probably about right. I think it's very likely that Dunn will hit around 25 homers with a batting average under .240 and an OPS around .800. That's not what the White Sox paid for, but it's a lot better than they got last year. And that will have to do.

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Other Ask Alex questions for 2012
Can Jason Heyward return to his rookie form?
Can Matt Kemp go 50/50?

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