COMMENTARY | Adam Dunn has gotten off to yet another slow start, giving Chicago White Sox fans reason to believe that he has fallen into the same kind of funk that lasted an entire season in 2011. There are some frightening similarities but also key differences that can give White Sox fans cause to hold out hope.
Through the first 34 games, Dunn's 2011 season actually looks far better. He was batting .210 with a .727 OPS, which would have seemed to constitute a fairly minor slump. This season, Dunn has only a .156 average and .646 OPS, erasing all doubt that something is afoot. While this does not necessarily bode well for the current season, it certainly suggests that there are different underlying causes for each.
Coming into this season, Adam Dunn and his hitting coach, Jeff Manto, boasted of a new mental approach at the plate. The gist of this approach was that he would be more aggressive early in the count to avoid hitting in so many two-strike counts. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron has covered how poorly this approach was working, and Jeff Sullivan has since updated with how he has since abandoned it, which serves to at least partially explain how poor his start has been.
Compared to the 2011 season, Dunn's batted ball statistics are a lot different. In 2011, he simply lost his power. His fly ball rate wasn't much different, but his home runs per fly ball rate dropped in half while his infield fly ball rate doubled.
The funniest statistic of them all is that his line-drive rate was well above his career average, but he probably always hits liners into the left-handed pull-hitter shift that defenses use against him -- so they don't help that much.
For 2013, his strikeout rate is roughly where it has been the other two years in Chicago (which is significantly higher than anywhere else he's played), but it is his ground ball rate that is the problem. His HR/FB is fine, similar to career averages, though it should be mentioned that it was far higher than normal last season.
His line-drive rate is close to career average. His infield fly ball rate is way down from his career norms, so popups are not an issue like they were in 2011. Ground balls are the problem here, as well as probably some bad luck. His ground ball rate is far above anything he's posted previously over a full season. While I speculated that line drives are usually caught by the shift, that's nothing compared to what I believe his out rate would be on grounders because of the shift. He has never had this problem before, so I have to think an adjustment can be made.
He has probably had some bad luck because his batting average on balls in play is low at .147, but the high rate of ground balls is also partially to blame for a low success rate on balls in play. In 2011, his BABIP was a much more robust .240 -- this was below career average but does not seem unlucky since his infield fly balls became so much more frequent.
Adam Dunn's 2013 season is quite clearly different than his 2011 season. Whatever the cause of each, they are not the same. Unfortunately, that does not lead us any closer to a solution. Can he improve?
My estimate is that Dunn abandoned the aforementioned new approach at the plate April 24. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs set his begin date for Dunn's change of approach as April 22, an uneventful 0-for-4 day. I will go with April 24 since that was his first multiple-walk game of the season and came following an off-day when he likely would have had time to work on his swing and approach.
Since that day, when he was batting a cool .100, he has batted a relatively stout .220 with a .930 OPS. His walk rate has been nearly 17 percent, which is above career average. His strikeout rate has been about 29 percent, which is higher than career average but well lower than his average as a White Sox player.
Adding more reason for optimism, after a slow week Dunn told Buster Olney that he had "blown up" his mechanics before beginning the White Sox's series in Minnesota. Dunn blasted 3 home runs in the final 2 games of the series after he was robbed of another in the first game. All of his home runs, as well as his double, were to the opposite field, which is out of the ordinary for Dunn. This adjustment to his physical swing mechanics seems to be a perfect complement to his readjusted mental approach, at least so far. Dunn will still have to consistently improve his numbers to keep the goodwill he earned over the weekend.
Adam Dunn may not be playing poorly for the same reasons as his historically bad 2011, but he is still playing badly. His rally back from an 0-for-31 streak earlier in the season is better than nothing but still not good enough. Robin Ventura and the White Sox remember that Dunn has had slumps last an entire season.
Dunn is in uncharted territory when it comes to his struggles. He was once a hitter who had never struggled; he then became a player who owned one of the worst seasons in MLB history. After an acceptable recovery in 2012, he is again arguably playing the worst season out of any player in this young season. Unfortunately, with different root causes for his respective poor seasons, it is unclear whether he has the wherewithal to jump-start his production once again. The early indications, however, are very positive.
Even if Dunn has not learned from his past struggles, the White Sox have. Adam Dunn is running out of time before he loses his tenuous grasp on a starting role.
Three home runs in two days is a great start, though.
Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. He has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN and has contributed to sports blogs such as The Flapship . Follow him on Twitter @jlongrc.
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- Adam Dunn
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