Adam Dunn and the Case for the K

08.11.2004 | Tim Marchman | Sports | 2 Comments

Cincinnati outfielder Adam Dunn is having a great season. If the Reds were still in the pennant race, he’d probably be considered for the Most Valuable Player award.

Going into play yesterday, Dunn’s batting line was .279 AVG/.412 OBA/.601 SLG. He is on pace to finish the season with 50 home runs, 118 walks, and 108 runs. He is also on pace for 196 strikeouts, which would break the major league record of 189 set by Bobby Bonds in 1970.

While it’s obvious that Dunn is having a fine season, it’s less obvious that his huge strikeout total, in the context of his time, isn’t historically significant. Changing conditions in baseball — the decreasing importance of the contact game, the rise of the relief pitcher, and the gradual loss of the stigma surrounding the strikeout — have been making K’s increasingly common since the turn of this century. This isn’t indicative of a change in players’ abilities; it’s indicative of a change in the game itself.

In the era of Joe DiMaggio, to take the most famous example of a hitter who never struck out, American Leaguers whiffed in 10.2% of their at-bats. These days, hitters strike out 19.2% of the time.

Dunn is striking out in 35% of his at-bats, or 1.82 times more than the league-average hitter. That’s not bad at all; in fact, if Dunn keeps up his current pace, his ratio of strikeouts to league average this year will rank as only the 114th worst since 1900.

Consider some of the names on the list of 60 players who have struck out at a rate more than twice the league average: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Larry Doby, Willie Stargell, Ralph Kiner,Lou Gehrig, and Hank Greenberg. Each one is a Hall of Famer.

Since the 1947 integration of baseball, when the quality of the game began to take a noticeable upturn, 59 players have exceeded Dunn’s single-season ratio. At the top of that list are some genuinely amazing strikeout achievements. The champion is Gary Alexander’s 1978 season, when he hit .225 and struck out 166 times in 498 at-bats for a 2.44 ratio.

In 1979,Gorman Thomas had exactly the same season Dunn is having now, save a batting average 40 points lower. He struck out 175 times in 557 at-bats in a league where an average hitter would have struck out 74 times in the same playing time — a 2.35 ratio. He makes Adam Dunn look like a duffer.

As for Bobby Bonds’s 1970 season, no one now remembers this, but Bonds had an amazing 745 plate appearances that year. He set the record not just because he was strikeout prone, but because he played so much. His ratio was 1.81 — high but unremarkable, just like Dunn’s.

Many aspirants have approached Bonds’s mantle as the single-season strikeout king. The record may actually have been broken by now but for the fact that managers have shown a tendency to sit players getting too near it.

In 2002, then-Brewer Jose Hernandez, who was having an otherwise fine season, was benched in eight of the team’s last 11 games as manager Jerry Royster sought to protect him from the supposed ignominy of the record. Royster was rightly ridiculed for keeping his best player out of ballgames, but he achieved his purpose, and Hernandez ended the season with 188 strikeouts.

While Reds manager Dave Miley hasn’t said whether or not he’ll sit Dunn near the end of the season, it seems unlikely, if only because of the respect he would lose for not allowing Dunn a clear shot at hitting 50 home runs.

An even better reason, of course, would be that the record is nowhere near so bad as people like Royster seem to think. All things being equal, you would probably prefer that a player didn’t strike out 200 times; but of course all things never are equal, and the massive strikeout totals seem not to be doing Dunn too much harm. Strikeouts are a small price to pay for 50 home runs and 120 walks.

Those who would dispute this should consider Dunn’s teammate Sean Casey, the poster boy for strikeout avoidance. He’s having an excellent season of his own, hitting .342 with only 22 K’s in 380 at-bats. Despite that, Casey’s .967 OPS is 45 points lower than Dunn’s. And to answer the critics who decry the strikeout because it prevents a hitter from driving in runs, consider that Casey actually had one fewer RBI (70 to 71) than Dunn going into last night’s game.

Obvious as it is, it bears saying: There are more important things for a hitter to do than avoiding striking out. Hitting for power and getting on base are first among them. Adam Dunn is among the best in the game at both.

There’s not a thing wrong with Dunn’s game, any more than there was a thing wrong with Bobby Bonds’s or Hank Greenberg’s. I hope he goes all the way to 200 strikeouts just to prove it.

And, by hitting .279 while putting relatively fewer balls in play, Dunn is avoiding hiiting into double-plays. I can well remember as a Mets fan growing up seeing Gary Carter striving to make contact with two strikes - and, as a result, hitting weak ground balls to short which ended up yielding two outs, instead of one.
08.13.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
I am a Reds fan, and more importantly, an Adam Dunn fan, so I am very excited to see Dunn getting more and more of the attention he deserves. I was at a game recently versus the Dodgers and had the privilege of watching Dunn launch a home run out of the stadium and into the Ohio River, the first time it's been done at Great American Ballpark. Anyways, I digress. I like the fact that Marchman mentions the difference between Dunn and Casey. Casey is a far more famous player and he in fact made the All Star team this year. However, Casey has been batting third for most of the year, while Dunn has been batting fourth or fifth. This has given Casey a much better chance to knock in runs, and hit with strong protection behind him. I can't tell you how many times I have seen Adam Dunn hit solo homeruns throughout his career, and it is in large part because of managerial incompetence on the part of the Reds. Bob Boone once experimented with the idea of batting Dunn leadoff, and while I do not agree with that idea, I think the two or the three hole could certainly work, given his ability to get on base.

As I said, I'm just glad to see Dunn get his due. Good work.
08.17.2004 | Matt Luby

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