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.