It has finally happened. The Chicago White Sox have announced that Adam Dunn will see his playing time reduced.
No amount of hyperbole can adequately describe how dreadful Dunn’s season has been. I like to imagine that when H.P. Lovecraft first created his Cthulhu mythos, he was anticipating the unfathomable alienness of Dunn’s collapse. As Dave Cameron presented today, Dunn is alone as the only “good” player who has ever been this bad—at least according to FanGraphs’s iteration of Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Whether you prefer the new school or old school of statistics, the depth of Dunn’s offensive despair is impressive (or to a ChiSox fan, depressive). As a full-time first baseman in 2010 with the Washington Nationals, Dunn managed 3.5 WAR. As an almost full-time designated hitter*, Dunn has been exactly six wins worse, clocking in at negative 2.5 WAR.
In 435 plate appearances, he has just 11 home runs and only 40 RBI. His triple slash of .163/.290/.289 could have made a spot appearance in Tracy Jordan’s fictitious movie Hard To Watch. His ratio of home runs to fly balls is only 10.9 percent. It is his only season under 20 percent since he was a rookie in 2002.
*Interestingly, despite playing only 274.2 IP or roughly 31 games in the field this year, Ultimate Zone Rating believes that Dunn has cost the White Sox more runs defensively (-6.3 UZR) than he cost the Nationals all of last season (-3.1 UZR).
Perhaps Dunn is the only “good” player to put together a -2.5 WAR season in the last 50 years, but he’s not the only recent prolific power hitter to utterly disappear over a short period of time. Consider the following triple slashes:
2008: .158/.256/.249 in 231 PA
Those numbers belong to Andruw Jones, a former 50-home run hitter who quickly crumpled from superstar to brand-name utility bench player. Recall that Dunn is at .163/.290/.289, which doesn’t look too different from Jones’ decrepit 2008.
Jones wasn’t given the opportunity to damage his team quite as much as Dunn has—fewer plate appearances and decent defense left Jones with only negative 1.0 WAR. Jones also experienced a two-year plunge into the abyss before climbing back out, rather than an unexpected single-season cliff dive.
Since escaping the Dodgers, Jones hasn’t recovered his star talent, but he has rebounded as a great fourth outfielder. In 2011, his .378 wOBA over 164 plate appearances with the Yankees have been roughly 40 percent above league average.
This comparison is not to suggest that Dunn will follow the path of Jones. But perhaps Dunn’s season-long meltdown isn’t as unfathomably alien as it appears.