Adam Dunn’s strange and wonderful MLB career deserves more attention

Adam Dunn was a thoroughly weird player. Jon and Alex give some of the details in the Dorktown embedded above. You should watch it! His crazy lefty kryptonite in 2011 and his relentless pursuit of the “three true outcomes” (TTO) are highlights. But they don’t cover all of the weirdness, because Adam Dunn himself doesn’t cover the weirdness. What’s truly strange about his career is that he leaked.

Not in the physical sense. Don’t be gross.

What I mean is that Dunn, through no fault of his own, became more than a single baseball player doing baseball player things. He became an avatar for the seismic shifts taking place around the game, picked up and amplified by the vanguard saberists who were beginning to turn the sport upside down.

One of the important things to understand about the early Moneyball era — in fact, to understand about any sort of analysis — is that only so many problems can be solved at a time, and analysts tend to focus on low-hanging fruit first. This is also true of data collection. In the initial surge towards the glistening data veins, complicated events, such as, say, defensive plays, go unrecorded. The raw facts of hits and walks and strikeouts and dingers do not.

When you’re using incomplete data to work on problems, you tend to run into what is known as the streetlight effect, which is best explained via a very brief story that goes something like this:

A helpful passer-by sees a drunk man on his hands and knees under a streetlight, clearly looking for something. The man tells the stranger that he can’t find his keys. Eager to assist, the passer-by asks where he dropped them.

“Over there,” the drunk man gestures, gesturing vaguely towards the darkness.

“Why are you looking here, then?”

“Because this is where the light is.”

In baseball, whose data revolution was just kicking into gear as Dunn’s own career with the Cincinnati Reds began, the light was on the three outcomes. His hitting ability could be measured more precisely than would have been thought possible even half a decade earlier. It turned out, to nobody’s surprise, that Dunn’s bat was extremely valuable. His defense? Well, that’s in the dark. We won’t look there quite yet.

I used to really enjoy watching Dunn hit. While the classic left-handed swing is surgical, a la Ken Griffey Junior or Robinson Cano, Dunn’s was far more ‘lumberjack’, in the vein of Jims Edmonds or Thome. That opened him up for strikeouts, of course, but hey, watching a man spin himself into the batter’s box dirt was a novelty back then (rather than happening three times an inning), so that was kind of neat too.

Anyway, I’m not going to pretend that Dunn actually sparked off the three true outcome revolution that appears to have reached its horrific apotheosis in Rangers slugger Joey Gallo (63 percent TTO over a six-year career). But at 51 percent, Dunn was its first avatar, the icon of the new wave. It’s not his talent which made that happen, but the intersection of that talent and the sport-wide context it operated within.

Rob Deer, who makes a short appearance in the video, looked a lot like Dunn, but played 15 years earlier. Baseball wasn’t ready, and Deer was an outlier. Dunn, meanwhile, was the beginning of an avalanche. Fundamentally, baseball has warped itself around Dunnism. Check out the TTO percentages from 2000-2020:

2000: 29%
2005: 27%
2010: 29%
2015: 31%
2020: 36%

(2019 was 35 percent, just in case anyone was wondering whether 2020’s shortened season gave us a small-sample freak.)

But while baseball’s offensive game has followed Dunn’s lead, the drunkard’s search has been less rewarding with his defense. Back in the 2000s, it was easy to write off defense as a marginal part of the game. We could measure hitting. We could sort of measure pitching. Defense, however, was a fudge. And how important could a fudge like that possibly be?

This line of thinking is how Adam Dunn spent so much time in left field despite playing the position like a drunk giraffe attempting the limbo. Everyone knew, of course, that Dunn playing anywhere except designated hitter (unavailable to the National League Reds) was a disaster, but they had no way of quantifying the disaster. Eventually analysts started paying more attention to defensive work, and by 2011 Dunn had been more or less banished from the outfield.

At the plate, Dunn was the harbinger of baseball’s future. In the outfield, he represented a blind alley, a place where sabermetrics as a whole got extremely lost for several years before groping their way towards a clearer understanding. While it’s not impossible to spot a clanger like Dunn trundling over the diamond, teams now put far more emphasis on defense than they did while he was at his peak.

It would be silly to say that Dunn’s role is causal in any of this. He just happened to be at the right time and the right place to be the poster child for baseball’s offensive metamorphosis while also a cautionary tale for what can go wrong with too-easy analytical thinking. His career manages to sustain two wildly divergent, yet interlinked narratives. For he is Adam Dunn, and he contains multitudes.

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