In June 2010, when asked by The Washington Post about the possibility of becoming a designated hitter, Adam Dunn said, “I think everyone pretty much knows that’s something I don’t want to do at this point in time of my career.”
In June 2011, Adam Dunn is a designated hitter.
What changed? Well, about halfway between that remark and the present day, the Chicago White Sox offered Dunn a $56 million contract to be their DH. All of a sudden, he became more willing to try something new. If only parents could afford to give similar incentives to their children when it comes to eating vegetables, making beds, etc.
The White Sox took a risk, hiring Dunn for an important job for which he had negligible experience. Dunn, a career National Leaguer, had started only two games at DH in 2010, six the year before. In retrospect, he didn’t have enough firsthand experience to know — for certain — whether putting his glove away would be a good idea.
As Dunn is proving this year, it isn’t easy to be a DH.
The White Sox took it on faith that Dunn would figure it out. So far, he has not. His .180 batting average is the worst among qualifying hitters in the American League.
Name a statistic, any statistic. Chances are it isn’t pretty. At U.S. Cellular Field, where a 40-homer season was supposedly predestined, he’s batting .115. He’s hitting .152 with runners in scoring position. His on-base percentage (a longtime Dunn trademark) is the worst of his career.
He leads the AL with 71 strikeouts, despite missing eight games — six of those in April because of an appendectomy.
The season is more than two months old, but the sure signs of a revival aren’t there. Over the past two weeks, Dunn is hitting .103.
The appendectomy, of course, is important to keep in mind. We don’t know for certain how Dunn is feeling, although he told the Chicago Sun-Times last month he’s “100 percent healed” from the surgery. Still, the time away prevented him from gaining confidence and establishing his swing early in the season.
Nevertheless, Dunn is about to graduate from “slow start” to “neon warning sign to every owner and general manager in the American League.”
If Dunn doesn’t turn around his season quickly, expect the following conclusions to be drawn by reasonable people throughout the industry:
The number of hitters who truly can be productive in the full-time DH role is smaller than originally thought.
Players who slug — and slug alone — are probably not worth a four-year, $56 million investment.
It’s unwise for an AL team to ask an established NL star to try an entirely different role with this much money at stake.
And make no mistake: The DH role is entirely different. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you can ask Jorge Posada. After maintaining a respectable .811 OPS as the Yankees’ primary catcher last year, Posada has tumbled to .623 this season, his first as a DH.
Designated hitters are like football placekickers — hours of buildup, minutes of performance and the omnipresent danger of thinking too much.
“If you struggle as a DH,” Boston slugger/philosopher David Ortiz said, “you don’t know what to do.”
Of the change from everyday player to primary DH, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, “That’s kind of a shock to your system. You’re used to being in the battle on both sides of the ball. All of a sudden, you’re just waiting around to hit. I think it’s an adjustment period.”
It can take years for designated hitters to master the delicate balance among preparation, patience and on-field aggression. Jim Thome, patron saint of the DH, said he’s had the same routine for eight-plus years.
Maybe that’s why Ortiz — who has filled the role in Boston since 2003 — has been the AL’s best at the position this year. His .964 OPS is tops among hitters with at least 100 at-bats in the DH spot this year.
How does he do it? Well, Big Papi eschews the notion that designated hitters must put themselves through the baseball equivalent of a backstage obstacle course in order to keep a sweat going during the game. He does that beforehand, so he can spend time with his teammates in the dugout, watching the game and noting tendencies in the pitcher.
“I get my work in when I get to the field,” Ortiz said. “I get my whole body ready — running, lifting, everything.”
Ortiz should be rooting for a Dunn turnaround — unless, of course, the White Sox are sweeping the Red Sox, as happened earlier this week.
Ortiz, 35, will be a free agent after this season, and the industry’s opinion of the Dunn contract could influence how aggressively teams bid for his services. Right now, of course, Dunn’s deal looks like an albatross, but the better zoological analogy might be the humpback whale — an endangered species, among the last of its kind.
The market for designated hitters (like Vladimir Guerrero) already had tightened in recent years. Dunn’s underperformance won’t help to reverse a trend that has more teams going with committees and rotations than one famous slugger (such as Jermaine Dye).
Even now, we can’t necessarily say that designated hitters are underperforming as a group. Their OPS is 33 points higher than the league average, compared to 28 points above in 2003, the season of Ortiz’s ascent. In other words: DH production is down because all production is down, but it’s staying in proportion.
And while Dunn and Posada have struggled, others who are making similar adjustments have not. Leyland said Victor Martinez has been “absolutely tremendous” in his first year with the Tigers as a DH/catcher, and Michael Young is hitting .336 for the Texas Rangers in his first season as their primary DH.
But when Dunn signed that huge contract, he became the biggest example, for better or worse. It didn’t work when the Tampa Bay Rays signed Pat Burrell away from the NL two years ago, and it’s not working (so far) with Dunn and the White Sox.
So, the next time you see Dunn at the plate, keep this in mind: His at-bats don’t just help to determine whether the White Sox win or lose. They might just affect how other AL teams build their rosters for years to come.