Monday, August 15, 2011

Fixing the Big Donkey

Ok, the Reds season has gone down the tubes, so it's time to revisit our old friend Adam Dunn. During his time in Cincinnati, The Big Donkey was the biggest lightning rod in all of baseball for the simple reason that he personified the divide between traditional scouting and statistical analysis views of the game. Traditional scouting types hated him, statistical analysis fans loved him.

And, one of the first things I posted on this blog was a blurb about the likelihood that Adam Dunn would suffer an early decline. Dunn's game has always been predicated on the old-player skills of power and patience. And, Bill James first postulated that old-player skills were more susceptible to aging than the young-player skills of speed and batting average. The theory being that the loss of a step or the slowing of the bat would cause a player lacking young-player skills to fall off the cliff. For example, which player is better suited to survive a slowing bat and the loss of a step, Adam Dunn or Ichiro? Dunn is at the bottom of the acceptable spectrum in both outfield range and contact rate, while Ichiro is at the top. So, a slowing bat or loss of a step could be devastating for Dunn's production, while easily manageable for Ichiro. Anyway, I bought into that philosophy, which was a big reason why I was opposed to locking Dunn into a multi-year extension that would take him well into his 30s.

Now, that said, this year has been an utter nightmare for Adam Dunn. It's been so bad that it almost defies description. I still buy into the old player skills argument, but it's difficult to imagine the wheels completely and utterly coming off the wagon like this. Is it possible? Sure, in fact the old player argument expects an earlier and faster decline, but I would have thought he would have gone from ultra productive to mediocre to massive struggles. Instead, he skipped the intermediate step and went right to the massive struggles. Regardless, I'm going to take a swing at helping the Donkey out. Once a Red, always a Red.

There are countless possible reasons for Dunn's struggles. The change in leagues and resulting unfamiliarity with the pitchers, the change from playing in the field to being largely a DH, potential injuries, the weight of the contract and the corresponding expectations. It could be one or all of those factors. The more potential variables that exist, the harder it is to pinpoint the specific cause of the struggles.

But, to me, the first thing that I see is a subtle change in his swing mechanics.

Below are two At Bats against one of the toughest pitchers in all of baseball: Justin Verlander. The games are 11 days apart in 2011, but Dunn does the same exact thing in each of them. It looks to me like Dunn has simply fallen into a bad habit in his swing. It's easy to do and occasionally difficult to both identify and fix. But, Dunn utilizes a much more extreme bat waggle/hand position with the ChiSox than he did during his time in Cincinnati and Arizona.

If you watch this video (I suggest pausing it at the 2 second mark and again at the 26 second mark), look at how long it takes Adam Dunn to get his bat up into hitting position. He lays the bat on his shoulder, actually past horizontal and somewhat pointing to the ground. And, he maintains that position for a LONG time. In fact, Justin Verlander gets past the apex of his leg kick before Dunn begins to bring the bat up into a more vertical position. Verlander is probably the hardest throwing starting pitcher in baseball, but Dunn waits until Verlander is unpacking his leg kick and beginning to drive to the plate before bringing his bat up.

If you are slow to get the bat up into hitting position, then you are going to be slow to the ball. And, against MLB pitching, you can't afford to be even a fraction of a second late. In this instance, Dunn makes it work (in part because he gets an 89 mph offspeed pitch), but I really don't think that bat position is a recipe for success.

And, below, here's another At Bat against Verlander, this time almost 2 weeks later, but the same bat waggle and delay in getting into hitting position. This time, Verlander gets the better of him. Stop the video at the 32 second mark and look at how far into the windup Verlander has gotten compared to the bat position of Dunn. How can Verlander be unpacking the leg kick and Dunn still have the bat parallel to the ground??? How can you hit like that??? Being slow to get the bat up into proper hitting position will very likely make him slow to the ball, but it also likely means that he is now moving his hands into hitting position at the very same time he is moving other parts of his body to trigger the swing. At times, it almost seems as if the barrel of the bat is still moving up and in towards the plate when the body begins moving forward to meet the pitch. The simultaneously moving parts to his swing could also help explain his struggles.

Now, let's take a look at a few of Dunn's At Bats while he was with the Reds.

First, here's a battle with one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, C.C. Sabathia. Look at Dunn's bat position against C.C. You can see that he doesn't rest the bat on his shoulder and he never gets past parallel. Also, he brings the bat up to a vertical hitting position before Sabathia begins to unpack his leg kick. So, he's a hair quicker in making his move to bring the bat up into hitting position and he has a shorter distance to travel to get into that position.

(For whatever reason, isn't properly embedding the older Reds video clips, but if you click on the black box it'll open up the videos in a new window)

And, finally, here's a look at Dunn against Wandy Rodriguez. If I was Dunn, I'd use this video as an example of what my swing mechanics should be. The bat position is much higher and only occasionally is it horizontal to the ground. And, when Wandy is at the apex of his leg kick, you can see Dunn's bat is in ideal position. In this At Bat, he hasn't rested his hands on his shoulder and is never past parallel or pointing the bat at the ground. To me, this hand position makes him significantly quicker to the ball and puts him in better position to drive the ball.

Maybe Dunn has succumbed to the curse of Old Player Skills and an early career decline. Maybe he was right all these years when he told everyone that he didn't want to play 1b or be a DH, but rather was a leftfielder. Maybe he's just scuffling with the change in leagues.

But, if there was one thing I'd like to see Adam Dunn do over the final month-and-a-half it would be to stop resting the bat on the shoulder and pointing the barrel at the ground. Dunn isn't Rod Carew. He's not a handsy singles hitter who is going to slap and slash singles to all fields. Carew could afford to hit with a horizontal bat wrapped around his body. Dunn is a power hitter and needs to take a big swing to get his money's worth.

It's possible that Dunn has lost a bit of bat speed, but at the very least he hasn't gotten any faster. And, as he gets older, he should be trying to get quicker and use a more direct path to the ball, but instead Dunn has gone the other way. He has dropped his hand position, forcing him to travel farther to get into proper hitting position and meet the ball. Dunn needs to go back to the hitting position he used in the Wandy Rodriguez and CC Sabathia At Bats. Stop holding the bat horizontal to the ground and get it up into hitting position earlier. When a pitcher is running it up there at 95+, you simply can't wait to get your hands into hitting position until after the apex of the leg kick: that's just too late. Get quicker to the ball. Maybe that will get him back on track this year and it will certainly become more important as he ages and loses a bit of bat speed, as he doesn't have all that much margin for error at the plate.

This change might be part or all of what's ailing Adam Dunn. At the very least, if he went back to what worked in Cincinnati and Arizona, then he could cross the new hand position off the list of potential explanations for his struggles. Whatever the reason, the baseball world is just a bit more enjoyable when the Big Donkey is launching the ball into the stratosphere, so let's hope he gets back to doing just that...and soon.


  1. Not really interested in Dunn. But would love to see some more top prospect posts.

  2. I appreciate the insight, Lark. I have to say, I didn't see such a steep decline so quickly.

    In conjuction with Dunn, what the hell happened to Kearns? Was it the Ray King incident?

    Also, what are your thoughts on Travis Wood?

    Thanks, Adam.

  3. Anon,

    I should have the next one up ASAP.


  4. Adam,

    Man, I haven't thought about Kearns in a while. I remember when I thought Dunn would be the 40 homer guy and Kearns would be the .300 hitter with 30 homers guy. One lefty, one righty, a very impressive duo for the future. The wheels came off far too early for Kearns.

    I think you simply have to point to injuries with Kearns, but I can't be certain which was the real reason. Everyone points to the Ray King incident, and maybe that's it, but I wonder if all the hand problems he suffered weren't the real culprit. That would tend to be my take. Unless I'm misremembering (which is entirely possible), he had some type of repetitive use skin/bone injury on his hand where the the bone wanted to rub/wear through the skin. Something like that that lingered for a while.

    But, whatever the reason, when I saw Kearns a while after he left the Reds I was really surprised by how different his swing looked. In short, he had a hitch in his swing that I didn't remember from his Reds days. It really jumped out at me, so it wasn't a subtle difference. And, frankly, I think it was really a detrimental change to his swing, as it made his swing longer and slower to the ball. I'd have to imagine that the swing change was predicated on the injuries. It could have been hand injuries (my take) or the shoulder injury or both. Whatever it was, it's clear the injuries impacted his swing and level of performance.

    As for Wood, I still like him a lot. I'm a sucker for a very good changeup and Wood has a plus-plus one. Not to mention, I'm not sure how many plus-plus (or even plus) pitches the Reds have in their rotation. Who else has one that fits the bill? Aroldis obviously has a plus-plus fastball and a plus slider, but he's in the bullpen.

    Wood had a 5.02 ERA, but a much more respectable 4.17 FIP, which was more in line with how I thought he was pitching. So, I don't think he was performing as bad as he was made out to be and I'm not sure he should have lost his spot in the rotation. Overall, I'd love to see him get back into the rotation in 2012 and I think he can be a very successful pitcher for us. His changeup and cutter alone should be enough to at least ensure him a career at the back of the rotation, but his ceiling is better than that.

    Overall, I think he has a good chance to land in the rotation next year, especially since we will be short on southpaws in the rotation. I'm hopeful that Wood can bounce back, as the Reds could definitely use him.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!


  5. I think you're wrong here. It's an interesting take on the situation, but I think pre-swing and stance is one of the most overrated aspects of a baseball swing. It really doesn't matter how you stand, or where the bat is before the pitcher throws. Look at some of the crazy stances we've seen over the years. A batting stance is all about comfort and timing. Your stance should reflect what is most comfortable for you while standing in the box and waiting for the pitch. Dunn properly gets the bat into position and I paused the video as the pitch was midway to Dunn and he was in perfect position-- elbow and shoulder up, head down. Most hitters in the Major Leagues, regardless of stance, all get to about the same hitting position. Once they take their stride, they all look very similar. So I find his bat position to be much less of an issue than the fact that Dunn just doesn't look good at the plate. He's swinging at pitches early in the count that he never did as a Red. Once he started to struggle, he started to press at the plate. This is where hitters start swinging at bad pitches HOPING to get a hit, rather than batting with the confidence that they're going to get a good pitch and make solid contact. Fixing Dunn won't be easy because the mental block he is most certainly going through is the toughest thing to break. You won't have much success at the plate if you don't have confidence and a solid hitting plan. Dunn, right now, has neither.

  6. Anon,

    Actually, we're in agreement, so I think you misunderstood or perhaps I was unclear.

    My problem isn't with Dunn's pre-pitch position per se, but rather the fact that he's so late to get OUT of it and into proper hitting position. Dunn's pre-pitch position has gotten significantly more extreme than it was with the Reds. That's a red flag for me, as I suspect he's gradually slipped into a bad habit and is now trying to use his old swing with a more extreme hand position. And, frankly, I don't think it's working.

    I agree with you that pre-pitch position doesn't matter as long as you get into proper hitting position. It IS, however, a problem if your pre-pitch position makes you late to get into good position. I think that's the case with Dunn.

    At this point, I'm sure Dunn has no confidence, but I don't buy that Dunn has struggled for an entire season because of a mental block. I can see a new contract and the corresponding expectations weighing on a guy, but they don't completely collapse like Dunn. Jayson Werth, for example, has struggled in a new environment with a new contract, but he's still at least mildly productive.

    Another reason I don't think it's mental is because his plate discipline stats are largely the same. His "outside the zone" swing percentage was 28.5% in 2010 and 28.1% in 2011. He's not flailing at more pitches outside the zone, but he was productive in 2010 with the Nats and not with the White Sox in 2011. His contact rate in 2010 was 68.2% and in 2011 is 69.9%. His overall swing percentage was 45.0% in 2010 and 43.2% in 2011, which is in line with his 41.1% career rate. He saw 4.11 pitches per plate appearance in 2010 and 4.36 in 2011.

    So, he hasn't changed his approach to any significant degree. His approach is the same, but he's just not doing anything when he gets the pitch. That tells me it has more to do with mechanics than mental issues.
    Additionally, if you look at how fangraphs rates Dunn's performance against various pitches, I think they bear out my argument.

    Here is Dunn's runs above/below average on various pitches in 2010:

    Fastball: +29.8
    Slider: 0.0
    Cutter: -2.8
    Curveball: 0.5
    Changeup: -4.5
    Splitter: 0.8

    Now, here's how he grades out in 2011:

    Fastball: -9.4
    Slider: -7.5
    Cutter: -3.7
    Curveball: 0.9
    Changeup: -4.7
    Splitter: -0.7

    If you look at the biggest drop off from 2010 to 2011, you are really looking at the fastball. Dunn crushed the fastball in 2010 and that has been the story throughout his career. However, in 2011, he's gone from substantially above average to well below average on the fastball.


  7. --cont--

    He has also fallen off on the slider, but his 2011 performance against the slider is in line with 2 of his previous MLB seasons. However, nothing in his career comes close to comparing with his performance in 2011 against the fastball. In fact, over the course of his career, he is always at least 22 runs above average against the fastball. The 2011 drop off is very, very dramatic.

    Personally, I think that supports my theory that he is late to get into proper hitting position. If he's late getting his hands up into hitting position, then he'll be slower and later to the ball. And, if you're slower to the ball, then the fastball will be the toughest pitch to handle. It'll just eat you up.

    And, I've had similar experience at the plate. There was a time when my hands had drifted too far forward and I wasn't getting them back far enough or quick enough to trigger the swing. It was difficult for me to self-diagnose and it affected by ability to handle fastballs and drive the ball with any authority.

    Personally, I just don't see any justification for waiting until Justin Verlander starts to unpack his leg kick before getting the hands up into hitting position. It's inexcusable. To me, that's way too late to catch up to a 95+ mph fastball and I don't think you can drive the ball as effectively with such a late set position.

    Anyway, I really think there is something to Dunn getting into hitting position so much later than he did with the Reds. If I was the hitting coach, then this would be the first thing I would address. It could certainly a number of different things with Dunn, but I'd start there and see what would happen.

    Thanks for the comment!