Sharma: The depths, and depth, of Adam Dunn’s career

From SABR member Sahadev Sharma at Baseball Prospectus on January 14, 2015:

When Adam Dunn joined the White Sox he brought huge expectations. He’d just come off seven consecutive seasons with at least 38 homers, he was the prototype darling of the Pre-Zobrist Stathead Era, and, maybe most importantly, he had just signed a four-year, $56 million contract. Like Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, with big money comes big expectations—I may be a little off on that quote, having been more baseball cards than comics as a kid, but you get the point.

That 2011 season was anything but Dunn living up to expectations. It was his first year in a big media market—it just so happened to coincide with my first full season covering baseball—and everyone was asking him about his struggles. Of course, that meant I had to do the same, and in doing so, Dunn’s response to a lazy question would teach me a lot about being a reporter.

But before Dunn schooled me in my vocation, he schooled many baseball talking heads with his play. Dunn surely never intended it to be this way, but he became the face of a revolution—or, at least, a revelation. During his career, the balance of power shifted from the front third of a slash line to back part, while high strikeout totals were forgiven from otherwise productive hitters.

The big Texan wasn’t embraced by everyone, and some would always tsk disapprovingly at those gaudy strikeout totals and low averages. But Dunn came along at the right time, just in time to be championed by a certain type of analyst, and just in time to fit in with a league that was shifting toward his style of offense. When Dunn made his major-league debut in 2001, the big-league batting average was .264 and the strikeout rate was 17.3 percent. He retires with the league sitting at rates of .251 and 20.4 percent.

Those numbers were trending in that direction well before Dunn arrived, but the former Reds/Diamondbacks/Nationals/White Sox/A’s slugger became the go-to example of a player whose batting average and whiff totals were at the bottom of the league, but who still had immense value at the plate. He wasn’t the first three-true outcomes player, but he was one of the first for a generation of newfangled-stat lovers who came of age during sabermetrics’ boomlet.

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Originally published: January 14, 2015. Last Updated: January 14, 2015.