Monday, September 1, 2014

Redux: The Eternal Autumn of Adam Dunn

Players I covered on the Chicago White Sox are peeling away, set adrift to torment the fan bases of other clubs; Alexei Ramirez, Paul Konerko and John Danks are the last remaining guys who were on the club for the entirety of my season-and-a-half stint.
Adam Dunn was the latest Pale Hose to be trimmed, and it's remarkable that the Big Donkey is being eulogized as he is. Yes, he's a good guy. But he's a good guy who falls just short of Jamie Navarro as the most disastrous signing in the Reinsdorf Era.*
And remember how much hell J.P Riccardi caught when he suggested that Dunn didn't take baseball seriously (and yeah, accurate or not it really wasn't any business of his, but boy the straight talk was refreshing)? Based on how Dunn "bounced back" from 2011, almost four years and about $55 million later, maybe J.P. wasn't so far off, after all.
With Dunn appearing in White Sox storylines for the last time, I looked for one of my favorite all-time pieces on the beat, which, naturally, Kabletown being Kabletown, no longer exists on (at least any main byways of) the interwebs. What the hell, here it is once more, in all its wistfulness and three-year vintage tinge.

*This is, in fact, debatable on not only a visceral level — the high ("All-In") hopes of the Dunn signing in 2011 vs. the Navarro deal in the meandering late 1990s — but a statistical one, where FanGraphs (unlike Baseball-Reference or Baseball Prospectus) measures Navarro (2.5 career WAR) as an outright better White Sox than Dunn (-1.3 WAR).
The Eternal Autumn of Adam Dunn

Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011
Posted: 3:10 p.m.

By Brett Ballantini

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot.
He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before: Nothing to be done.

­­Beginning of  Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
Adam Dunn signed with the Chicago White Sox in early December, and the native Texan found the hullabaloo awaiting him at U.S. Cellular Field cut down by brisk gusts, cloudy skies and tiny specks of snow.
Dunn, chronically happy and chill, was nonplussed, walking through his new clubhouse and emerging into a wind­chilled dugout with the brashness that belied 38 homers per full season, pointing out at the massive, center field scoreboard, some 600 feet from home plate and 100 feet above the field, and asking — in serious manchild tone — whether anyone has ever lined a ball off of it.
It was that combination of brashness and naiveté that swept Dunn into Chicago, where he was penciled to cross 400 and 500 homer plateaus with the greatest of ease. After all, there was no reason to doubt that a slugger as effortlessly prodigious as he could ever lose his touch. As Babe the Blue Ox always followed Paul Bunyan, Dunn’s power stroke would never desert him.
Well, it’s August, the days are hot and sticky, and Dunn is nowhere to be found. Figuratively, his production has been vaporized: 11 homers and 40 RBIs in 99 games, a .590 OPS (he hasn’t been lower than .819 since 2003), and a slugging percentage of .296 that outpaces only the consummate Punch­-and-­Judy player, 44­year-old middle infielder Omar Vizquel, among his Chicago teammates — and that by a mere five points. But literally, for the start of this homestand, Dunn is absent, excused to usher his family through the death of his uncle, which has incited an expected flurry of Twitterpating messages all reaching an apex of: Adam, don’t hurry back.
“Dude, this is who I am. What you see is what you get,” Dunn said last week in Minnesota, by way of efficient explanation, apology and excuse wrapped in an enigma.
We last spoke at length before the Twins series, right before the last vestige of value Dunn could provide to the White Sox, rote fielding at first base in the absence of injured regular Paul Konerko, had deserted him in a nervous and bumbling game at the first sack, misplaying several balls into additional Mark Buehrle pitches and even whiffing on a pickoff throw.
A day later, Dunn recorded three strikeouts vs. Carl Pavano and was eventually pinch-­hit for in the ninth by Brent Lillibridge, who gives away more than half a foot and comfortably more than 100 pounds to Dunn but nonetheless achieved what Dunn could not, slugging a home run to left that sprung a 4­-1 game into an absolute laugher.
Straw has been piled on the camel all season by Dunn, but manager Ozzie Guillen has refused to snap and sit the slugger. But it was that ruthlessly efficient effort by Dunn — seeing only three balls in 14 pitches en route to three straight Ks and a fly out after Juan Pierre had stolen his way to third — along with signs of outright disgust and frustration (tossing his bat, helmet and batting gloves all the way back to the foul screen after one punch-out) that may have finally broken the llama’s back.
Sure, Dunn got three more starts in Baltimore, good for 13 at­-bats yielding a hit, four Ks, and disappointment more deeply entrenched in all parties involved. Meanwhile, it’s the relatively diminutive Lillibridge who appears to have won the backup first base job, when he’s not busy covering for Alex Rios miscues in center field.
Dunn prides himself not on home runs or mere runs produced but times on base, which means he’s surely devastated at the notion that while he’s never had an on­base below .350; he’s more than 50 points from that now. In fact, so many marks that should have been absolute basement level for Dunn in hitter-­friendly USCF are now so far from attainment he must be tempted to throw the towel in on the entire season.
Dunn is hitting .161, which represents a modicum of improvement over the last snapshot taken of him. Still, that’s a full 10 points lower than the lowest qualifying average in the modern era, Dunn would have to hit .317 in the stretch run to tie Rob Deer — and that presumes the DH still receives the same rate of at­-bats as he has been given, inexplicably, through game 120. As stubborn as Ken Williams is, or desperate as Guillen might become, it’s a virtual lock Dunn won’t see a similar rate of playing time as days get sticker and times get crunchier.
How could this have happened to a player who figured to go 40­-100 in Chicago as easy as a sneeze? Mark Kotsay, 2010’s primary DH, was howled out of town, and Guillen’s decision to choose a multifaceted lefty DH over popular but immobile clouter Jim Thome was loudly derided — yet Kotsay’s OPS was a relatively bloated .683, almost 100 points higher than Dunn (White Sox DHs overall clocked in with a .728 OPS in 2010). What that indicates is in store for Dunn is unknown, but it’s a safe bet it involves pitchforks and torches.
I’ve said it before, but tracing back to the first day of spring training, Dunn was destined to struggle. The Big Donkey and I had many conversations in March, but it was the first one that still sticks out today. We spoke at length about his poor start (and finish) with the Washington Nationals in 2010, and Dunn had pretty well accepted the fact that he would start slowly in Chicago as well — if he got off to a strong start, I’ll paraphrase, look out, because Dunn thinks he might hit .400.
On Opening Day in Cleveland, having bothered to look up Dunn’s starts stretching before 2010 in light of his immutably ugly Cactus League performance, I was surprised to see that March/April was the strongest season segment of any in Dunn’s career — still standing at a .943 OPS for his career even after a horrendous April 2011. When I strolled up to him at Progressive Field on April Fools’ Day to give him that good news — no worries, Adam, you don’t have to start slow — the genial slugger spilled his Dr. Pepper in surprise.
Alas, my news came too late, as Dunn had already resolved himself to a slow start, a dangerous drop that would see him slip so deep he cannot climb back to the surface this season. And now, noting body language and the absolute inability to pull out of the swoon, it’s a legitimate question whether, at 31, Dunn can ever climb back out of the morass that 2011 has become.
With the Nats last year, Dunn opined to me that, on a team starved for runs, he was forced to abandon his Frank Thomas­-like plate discipline and swing at pitches he’d normally take, and the stats bore that out — Dunn swung at more balls out of the strike zone than ever.
This year, the reasoning — and results — are more puzzling. He’s missed less strikes in 2011, is making more contact, and he’s chasing fewer bad pitches, at least compared with 2010 in Washington. But how he’s missing pitches indicates just how confused Dunn is at the plate, as he’s inexplicably missing more strikes.
So, he’s missing more good pitches, and chasing more bad ones. What’s next, dogs and cats living together, human sacrifice, mass hysteria?
We’re left with just the Canyonero shell, no motor or interior. Dunn has handled himself well throughout his descent, remaining a good teammate and an amenable interview. And the bluster of his earlier days, when Dunn could roll out of bed and stand a strong chance to clouting a ball 425 feet that night, remains — as recently as a month ago Dunn declared that he and fellow flounderer Rios would be putting the team “on their shoulders” in the second half.
If that’s what the club is dependent on, Sox fans, cancel the postseason show.
As someone who endorsed a rehab assignment rather than rushing Dunn back from an April appendectomy and not a couple of months later pressed the White Sox to begin platooning him to save the season, and Dunn from himself, regardless of salary (a strategy later apparently acceded to by the team), it’s safe to say that as unprepared as the team was to deal with a slumping hulk of a slugger, it handled the developments about as poorly as they possibly could.
No one can force Dunn to watch more video or accept the fact that until he develops beyond a Sosaesque handling of off­-speed pitches, that’s all he’ll see in the American or any other League; but baseball is a long haul, and successful seasons are borne of anticipating and steering around any and all negative tendencies. The White Sox failed indelibly in doing so this year, with Dunn and players beyond. Instead, Dunn’s tendency to be in constant “I’m feeling better...I think” mode reflects that of the club as a whole, where every series is touted as the one where it all comes together and it defies its status as a mere .500 team.
In a year when the club dove All­-In and the personally mended fences between key members of the team’s management branch promised great fortune on the South Side, there’s been a curious tendency toward cruise control as it has navigated the season.
Is there something wrong with Dunn? Certainly nothing that a little offseason work can’t cure. There’s nothing to prevent him from hitting fastballs again, relaxing at the plate, adjusting to the AL, its pitchers or the DH role.
What might be a problem is the very historic nature of his season-long swoon. There’s a reason why starters are rested to avoid 20 losses, or hitters sit to fall shy of 200 Ks. Dunn is so deep into his morass, it’s hard to imagine that the rest of his career, as long as it goes, isn’t just a matter of waiting for and accepting the inevitable declines.
Dunn still has every physical and mental tool he always has. Whether he can break out of the prison he now resides in is another question entirely.
The early returns, as summer cools, autumn creeps forward and suntans fade, are not generous to the genial giant.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Crystal Ball 2 (Rainout Boogaloo), or How a Rainout Could Have Saved a Season

We can help each other.
Can we find a way? We can find a way.
Wiley, “Electric Boogaloo”

Lonely at the Top: It's not too early to say the season is in Liriano's shaky hands.
[Note at 3:33 p.m. after a sublimely dominating Francisco Liriano win over the Twinkies: 

Never has it been so sweet to be revealed as a ninnied hand-wringer. If the White Sox's 4-5-6 starters Jose Quintana, Liriano, and Hector Santiago can stay in the groove of their last starts, it will take every bit of the dominating finish I foresee from the Tigers to hold off the Pale Hose. For now, you have to splash a sunny tint over the dour forecast that follows below.]

To wit, with 19 games remaining
In advance of the latest Series of the Season vs. the Detroit Tigers, I took a look ahead at how September would play out for the Chicago White Sox. As promised then: It wouldn’t end well.

But then, the Lord has provided durable evidence that indeed He believes good guys wear black.

With a washout on Thursday, the White Sox avoided what was almost certain to be a third consecutive free-fall out of sole possession of first place at the direct manhandle of the Detroit Tigers. The insipid return to April weather allowed the White Sox to avoid their executioner, Justin Verlander. The showers provided a pause for a club in dire need of a breath—as well as an excuse not to start Francisco Liriano in a game, ever again.

I wrote the above paragraph before it was announced that Robin Ventura was going to eschew the solid Gavin Floyd vs. Tigers matchup in the Monday makeup, give Jose Quintana a day of extra rest (hey, why ride him while he’s temporarily re-found his Rookie of the Year stuff?) and pitch—eek—Liriano on Saturday night at Target Field.

Liriano is much too scattershot at this moment to be pitching in a crucial game—yes, all 19 games remaining are crucial “playoff” games—and yet here he is, pitching Game 133, turning a likely victorious outcome behind Quintana into a tossup. Now, instead of a Minny sweep, I see a mere series win. With Detroit devouring its remaining schedule, that is foolhardy confidence on the part of Sox brass.

At a time when Robin should be finding reasons for Chris Sale or Jake Peavy to get an extra turn on short rest in order to remain ahead of Detroit, he’s essentially giving a game away in an attainable, necessary sweep. Woe is the White Sox.

Crystal ball
I’d originally revised the remaining season figuring on regular rest for the rotation of Peavy, Quintana, Floyd, Sale and Hector Santiago. Santiago should earn the fifth starter’s spot in spite of an inability to go more than, say, six innings in a start. Why? How about basing it on the fact that he’s been, like, unhittable in his two career starts (nine innings, six hits, six walks, one earned run, 14 strikeouts), with game scores of 60 and 61.
Screwy: Santiago should start any fifth-spot game to come.

Liriano over the same previous two starts? Nine innings, 10 hits, 11 walks, eight earned runs, nine strikeouts, with game scores of 40 and 35.

This giveaway game (I’m generously considering that Robin will realize the mistake of starting Liriano for the White Sox ever again and attributing the three future starts in the stretch run to Santiago) becomes the difference between trailing by a single game at the end of the season (making the Tigers catchable in the season’s final week) and two games (uncatchable without a massive 2008-everybody-wang-short-rest-tonight scenario).

One game—one loss—making that much difference? You betcha. Liriano, why oh why oh why oh why…

The results
Instead of using Thursday’s rainout to aggressively reshuffle the rotation and keep the pedal to the metal enough to stay within a game of Detroit, the season now plays out the same: Detroit takes the division at 89-73, with the White Sox two back, at 87-75.

Many of the same facts apply now, five days after my first crack at this. The White Sox have a fairly easy road the rest of the way—as do the Tigers.

The home/away advantage now actually does tilt in Detroit’s favor, with the Tigers getting 10 home games of the final 19, the White Sox eight.

Discounting the Detroit makeup, the White Sox play against two clubs (seven games) who are better than .500 and in the heat of the playoff race, the Tigers just one (three games, a home set vs. Oakland).

The White Sox are 36-32 against their opponents the rest of the way (including 5-12 vs. Detroit and 5-10 vs. K.C.), while the Tigers have gone 40-30 vs. their foes (under .500 against only Cleveland, at 7-9). So Detroit has an even easier trip into October than the White Sox.

The proper strategy
I made the point five games ago that the White Sox rotation is out of gas and tattered. That remains true. But if anything, that’s an excuse to push Peavy or Sale—perhaps even Floyd—out a day early at some point in the stretch run. (Of course, in a stretch run that involves trotting Liriano back out to the mound on September 15, don’t bother.)

The best chance Robin has to catch Detroit—because the division lead will be done for good as soon as Monday—is to push his best starters a bit.

I am not proposing a four-man rotation in the season’s last two weeks. But if Robin had skipped this Liriano start tonight by keeping his reliable four starters on regular rest, that alone would have added a win to the ledger.

Then, with Peavy being the best and perhaps only candidate to be run out on short rest, we could have seem him take a future Quintana start in the K.C. finale on September 20 or the Tampa finale on September 30. Q would still get his extra rest, and one of the more doomed Liriano/Santiago starts could be eliminated entirely.

These two simple but aggressive steps would both end the season in a tie with Detroit and re-set the rotation so that Sale is starting in the season finale vs. Cleveland. I already have the White Sox winning that game (perhaps improbably, although let’s nod to 2005 in predicting a season finale sweep vs. the Wahoos), but tell me, you feel better starting Sale there, or Floyd?

In the tiebreaker, then, you ask Peavy to come back again on short rest, with Floyd/Santiago/Liriano/Septimo/Marinez/Barojas/James/Thigpen all ready in case there’s a need to shatter glass to win the division.

The dirty details
Detroit shows cracks, largely with a defense that the whole of the Netherlands couldn’t plug. But where it really counts, the starting rotation, the Bengals have an advantage. The Tigs boast a Big 3 in the rotation (Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer) and even the back end is more stable than Chicago’s, with Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello.

If we generously call the bullpens a wash (seems there’s more stability at the moment in Motown), Detroit’s offensive advantage can be cancelled out by the White Sox’s defensive one. So it will come down to the rotations.

With Robin giving away the rainout advantage, I see the two teams tied for the last time on Monday, before the Tigers go out and, for the third time this season, take a division lead from Chicago by beating it head-to-head.

I’m giving gold stars to Sale, Peavy, Fister and Verlander for going undefeated the rest of the way. Here’s how the games will break down per pitcher:

White Sox: Peavy (White Sox go 4-0 in games he starts), Santiago/Liriano (1-3), Quintana (1-3), Floyd (1-3), Sale (3-0).
Tigers: Verlander (3-0), Sanchez (1-3), Porcello (2-2), Fister (4-0), Scherzer (3-1).

Detroit still will end up coming in and taking three of four from the White Sox, albeit in delayed fashion. But because of Chicago’s inability to properly take advantage of those Thursday raindrops by starting Liriano on Saturday, Detroit will leave town two days later in first place and will never look back.

Attacking series with a sense of "desperation" (yeah, with all of a one-game lead in the division) would have struck former manager Ozzie Guillen as symptomatic of the typical zeal of an out-of-touch analyst. Ventura at least regards such expert onlookers with, if not more respect, less expletives.

But in the end, it’s the same. If treating the remaining 19 games as one-game playoffs seems too stressful on the White Sox, they can take up golf. Pinning the meter, especially given a disadvantageous scenario vs. Detroit, is the only way to preserve what has been glorious surprise of a season.

It’s a shame the Sox are approaching it fat and sassy as opposed to having any sense of what lies ahead. Such laxity will cost them the division.

The grace of a September rain turns into a form of water torture.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Whoops! (revised, revamped, and still ugly)

I drive around the streets
an inch away from weeping,
ashamed of my sentimentality and
possible love.
A confused old man driving in the rain
wondering where the good luck
“I Made a Mistake,” Charles Bukowski

Comcast 'Boy': Even Peavy gets embarrassed over CSN's fussing. And the Bulldog don't embarrass easy.
As CSN renews its battle royale over who is Jake Peavy’s BFF, a gentle reminder to get off the Bulldog’s nut and pay better attention to the other guys on the roster:
Danks out of sling, expected to return during spring training
September 8, 2012 2:22:29 PM CDT
Jordan Danks is now out of his sling after undergoing shoulder surgery. He hopes to be throwing the ball again in December so he can be ready to return to the field during spring training.Read more…
I can just picture Chuck Garfien at the game last night telling Dan Hayes, “hey, I’m gonna write on Peavy tonight,” and a tiny tear streaming down the proud ex-San Diegan’s face. Immediately, both men text the Bulldog to see who wins drooling dibs for the day.

Best I can tell, the headline for Chuck's "Sox Drawer" originally was Medical miracle Peavy excited for stretch run and was toned down to, simply, Sox savior.

Hey, I’m all for giving Peavy his due. And Hayes worked late on Monday night to overcome a clunky lede and put together a nice Jose Quintana piece.

But this Padre pride stuff is a bit silly. Next you’re gonna tell me San Diego’s Shell Answer Man was touting Adrian Gonzalez as the best hitter in baseball, like a day before he was waive-traded to the Dodgers…

Wither MVP?
It's hard to keep up with ESPNChicago's Bruce Levine. He's their "Chicago baseball reporter" with web chats by the dozen to support his ubiquitousness, but man, he can't decide on a White Sox MVP.

A month ago Levine was touting A.J. Pierzynski as not just the White Sox MVP, but a viable candidate for most valuable in the entire league. Something about how "clutch" his hits were--when statistical analysis actually pointed to him trailing South Side clutch hitters, somewhere down in the Adam Dunn basement of shame.

A.J. must be wondering what he did to bug Bruce, because now the (somewhat) clear team MVP is Alex Rios

Give Levine credit for getting it right the second time. But points are docked, as usual, for the awful writing and editing of ESPN.

Awful lede? Check.
CHICAGO -- There have been many important contributions to the Chicago White Sox's success story this season. You can probably make a case for any number of players being the key to the team’s position atop the American League Central. 

Dissonant and contradictory premise? Check.
These days as you walk around the clubhouse, one name comes up more often than others. 
"Alex Rios and (A.J.) Pierzynski have been their best players,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “No question Rios has been big for them all season." 

(It's not bad journalism to cleave Leyland's quote to suit your premise, Bruce. Otherwise, you confuse your readers.)

Incongruous grammar? Check.
Rios is coming off his worst season in 2011 when he batted .227 with 13 home runs and 44 RBIs, but he has rebounded this season with 23 home runs and 85 RBIs to go along with a .293 batting average going into play on Tuesday. 

(No, Rios is not "coming off his worst season in 2011," he is "coming off his worst season, in 2011, when he ...")

And in a classic cover-your-ass move—and again, A.J. is left wondering what he did to anger Chicago's baseball writer—Levine pays lip service to Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera but shoehorns in Rios as a "top-five" MVP candidate.

Hyperbole at ESPN? Check.

And in developments outside of Chicago…
It was bad enough that team president David Samson made references to the Miami Marlins being "all-in" for 2012 (in a March 5 SI article that proved 1. He's not an astute observer of the American League and 2. However improbably, "all-in" as a rallying cry wasn't tramped six feet down permanently by the prodigious clodhoppers of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios). But then, he acceded to a dreaded, can-only-bite-you-in-the-ass "forecast":
The best case over the next decade, says [Miami Marlins team president David] Samson: “We’re one of the top seven powerhouses in major league baseball. Consistently running a top-third payroll. Making smart decisions, competing for division titles every year and winning one World Series at a minimum, but making the playoffs at least 60, 70 percent of the time.” And in the worst case? “We lose 90 games, draw 1.3 million and people need umbrellas because the roof leaks.”
 The Marlins will break two million fans, but sit at 12th of 16 NL teams in attendance.

The Marlins are on pace to go 72-90.

No word on the need for umbrellas, but, yeah.