You could argue — what the heck I will argue — that Adam Dunn in 2011 is the single least enjoyable player to watch in baseball history. He still has a half season to go and in that half season he could turn things around, whack a few home runs, lead the White Sox on a bit of a charge, it’s not impossible, not even wildly improbable. He’s hit 38-plus homers every single year since 2004. But watching him the first half season has been so dreary, so depressing, that after seeing him play a couple of games in a row I feel like I need a shot of Vitamin D or a vacation to someplace sunny.
Why is baseball fun to watch? There are many answers — different ones for different people. The connection to the past. The battle of pitcher and hitter. The geometry of the field and the way fielders try to cover it. The tense moments. On and on. But at its core, for me at least, the fun of baseball comes down to the connection of ball and bat. That is where so much of the action begins. That’s what leads to triples, double plays, diving catches, plays at the plate, long home runs. Bat meets ball leads to motion, leads to action, leads to heroics and mistakes and cans of corn. Sure, there is excitement found in other places — in the fastball that brushes the outside corner, the curveball that buckles the knees, the big swing and miss. Sure, there is fun in the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher, catcher and a great base runner and in the well-earned walk. But, for the most part, the game needs a trigger. And the trigger is ball hitting bat.
Adam Dunn, at the moment, is striking out 35.8% of the time he comes to the plate. If he sustains that — I don’t think he will, but if he does — that would set the record for highest percentage of strikeouts per plate appearance. Mark Reynolds last year struck out 35.4% of the time, which is currently the highest percentage for a player with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Reynolds struck out 33.7% of the time in 2009, which is the second-highest percentage. Dave Nicholson had a most remarkable season in 1963, when the strikeout was much rarer. He whiffed 175 times in 126 games … he was the first player to ever strike out one out of every three times he came to the plate.
The list of highest strikeout percentages in baseball history:
1. Adam Dunn, 2011, 35.8%
2. Mark Reynolds, 2010, 35.4%
3. Mark Reynolds, 2009, 33.7%
4. Dave Nicholson, 1963. 33.7%
5. Mark Reynolds, 2008, 33.3%
6. Jackkkk Cust, 2008, 32.9%
7. Rob Deer, 1987, 32.9%
8. Rob Deer, 1986, 32.8%
9. Rob Deer, 1991, 32.5%
10. Benji Gil, 1995, 32.4%
I should say here that high hitter strikeout totals (even while strikeouts are almost always valueless outs) do not bother me much. I think Mark Reynolds had a very good year in 2009, when he set the big league record with 223 strikeouts. Even with all those whiffs, he had a better-than-average on-base percentage of .349. And he crushed 30 doubles and 44 home runs — the guy slugged .543. The legendary Rob Deer had more than one good offensive year despite the strikeouts. Jackkkk Cust walked 111 times and hit 33 homers in 2008, and overall that was a quite valuable offensive season. The truth is that it’s more often the LOW strikeout guys — Yuni Betancourt, Yadi Molina, Cesar Isturis, Chris Getz and Alberto Callaspo among others have a knack for putting the ball in play — who end up killing the offense.
But I’m not talking about winning and losing here. I’m not talking about value. I’m talking about excitement. And that’s something different. I’ve often written that Bobby Abreu is the MBGPIBH — Most Boring Good Player In Baseball History. I have immense respect for what he has accomplished as a player, what he continues to accomplish. The guy has a lifetime .400 on-base percentage (and a .400 on-base percentage this year). He’s had two 30-30 seasons. He’s won a Gold Glove, and he really seemed to be an excellent fielder in his younger days. He has scored and driven in 100 five times. I’m assuming he has 21 more home runs in him (though his power had dwindled to almost nothing) and that will make him only the eighth member of the 300 homer, 300 stolen base club. I don’t want to get into it here because this post is already drifting, but it seems every couple of weeks I have a discussion with a friend about Abreu’s Hall of Fame case. I think he’s making a case. I also think he’s headed for the Hall of Not Famous Enough.
Abreu, though, is an agonizing player to watch, at least for me. His at-bats feel like audits. They just go on and on, an endless stream of near strikes called for balls, good pitches spoiled, swings and misses, more near pitches called for balls — he’s doing exactly what he SHOULD be doing. Abreu controls the batter’s box as few ever have. He is an artist at the plate, but an artist in the way that a good auto mechanic is an artist. I admire what he does. I appreciate the value of it. But I wish they would give me a magazine or something to read while he does it.
And that’s the point here: I’ll have a post coming about the most exciting players in baseball. But who is the LEAST exciting player? I don’t think there’s any question about it.
Adam Dunn has always been the kind of player who does not put the ball in play much. Thirty-four players in baseball history have qualified for batting titles and put the ball in play 60% or less of the time. Adam Dunn has done that NINE times. He has long been what is now called a three-outcome hitter — strikeouts, walks and home runs. Those three things have made up a little more than 49% of his plate appearances, which, yes, is the highest percentage in baseball history. Another little chart:
Highest percentage three-outcome players (min. 6,000 PAs):
1. Adam Dunn, 49.2%
2. Jim Thome, 47.5%
3. Mark McGwire, 45.6%
4. Pat Burrell, 42.7%
5. Jose Canseco, 40.7%
6. Mickey Mantle, 40.2%
7. Troy Glaus, 40.1%
8. Reggie Jackson, 39.7%
9. Darryl Strawberry, 39.6%
10. Eric Davis, 39.4%
That list, as you can see, is loaded with thrilling players to watch. I mean, Mickey Mantle, Eric Davis, Reggie Jackson, Darryl Strawberry in his prime, these are some of the most exciting players in baseball history. Mark McGwire in 1998, no matter what you may think of it now, was magical at the time. The reason they were fun to watch, of course, was that third outcome. You know the football coach line about how three things can happen when you throw the ball and two are bad. The good thing — the complete pass — makes it worthwhile. And so it goes with that third outcome, the home run. For years and years, I think, Adam Dunn was an exciting player to watch, exciting because when he hit the ball, he hit it SO BLEEPIN’ HARD. That third outcome made the whole thing work. The strikeouts are more exciting when the pitcher is trying to avoid having the batter smack a 485-foot homer. The walks are more exciting too.
But Dunn isn’t crushing baseballs now. He’s not even hitting them. His batting average is .173 — the lowest full-season batting average in the last 75 years is Rob Deer’s .179 in 1991.* Dunn pops up to the infield more often than he homers. And with that third outcome missing, watching him is torturous. It isn’t just that the thrill of the home runs is gone.The strikeouts, which used to seem dramatic and mere side effects for the 40 home runs he hit every year, now seem pointless and inevitable. The walks seems kind of pathetic. Everything about an Adam Dunn at-bat these days feels like trauma. That horrifying scene in Swingers where Favreau keeps calling back the girl he met in the bar? Yeah, every Adam Dunn at bat feels like that.
*It should be noted that Dan Uggla is hitting .177 at the moment and is making his own run at history.
Dunn, of course, doesn’t offer much of anything else besides for what he does at the plate. This makes it worse. He is a DH who occasionally plays the field but probably shouldn’t (he was a legendarily bad defender even in his younger days). He can’t run (Dunn has gone first-to-third on a single exactly ZERO times this year). I think many of the least exciting players in baseball history have been these sorts of players — home run hitters who stopped hitting home runs. Watching Rob Deer at the end of his career was misery. Watching Greg Luzinski when the ball clonked off his bat was sad. Jack Clark’s last year in Boston was agony. But right now Adam Dunn’s got them all beat. He strikes out more. He doesn’t put the ball in play much. And his power has waned. Dunn doesn’t turn 32 until November, but he seems a lot older. And every at-bat feels like a Shakespearean tragedy. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said to the Chicago Tribune: “I wish I could be in his brain to see what he’s thinking.” I prefer Shakespeare: Things without all remedy should be without regard; What’s Dunn is Dunn.