Adam Dunn’s (mostly failed) tweaks

Now that he’s nearing 35, Adam Dunn may not be the same fearsome offensive force he was earlier in his career. So he’s experimented with a few tweaks to his game over the last couple of years. Mostly, they didn’t work. But he did retain a few aspects of those experiments that benefit the veteran to this day. 

The first idea might have been the worst idea. In spring training last year, Dunn decided to be more aggressive on the first pitch. The result was disastrous, as he got 50% worse at getting into counts that were in his favor. 

"That didn’t work for me," the slugger admitted before a game against the Giants in August. "I get myself into a lot of bad counts anyway, that was not good for me." Indeed, 2013 was the second-worst year of his career by most offensive stats. 

He shook his head at the idea, in retrospect. It’s just so different than who he is. He’s in the bottom 15% of all qualified batters since 2001 when it comes to swinging. He’s usually in the middle of the pack when it comes to first-pitch swinging.

It was something fundamental to his game that he screwed with. His patient approach. "It doesn’t work for everyone — I’m not so sure it’s worked for me," Dunn said of his style at the plate. "It’s just something that from an a very young age — in high school I’d feel like I’d get one or two pitches to hit every couple of weeks. You’d get frustrated, but you know what, you can’t score runs without walks." 

This year, Dunn’s back to his normal ways with respect to aggression. Only eight qualified hitters have swung less often than him. He doesn’t really understand why other people think there are more good pitches out there to hit than he does, especially pitches outside the zone. 

"I know that’s not a strike," Dunn said confidently about borderline pitches on the outside. "Can I hit it? I know I can. But I can’t swing at it."

Take a look at this heat map for the league’s power at the plate and it’s clear that batters do better on pitches inside the zone. So Dunn’s right to wonder why he should be asked to be more aggressive and swing at more pitches. "Why? Why should you have to? You go up there and swing at this pitch that’s down and away off the plate on a consistent basis, it’s not going to work out," he pointed out. 

Dunn was also public about trying to beat the shift last year. But, after the worst full-season power numbers of his career, built on the most full-season ground balls per fly balls of his career, Dunn’s back to being more of a pull, power hitter. 

"I go to left field, if it feels right, I’ll roll out there," he said of his current approach. "If it doesn’t feel right, I’ll try to fix it."

But in this case, Dunn did retain some of the things he learned while trying to beat the shift. With a man in scoring position, he’ll "try to poke a couple over there," even if it’s "easier said than done." 

If you look at his pull percentage with two strikes, you can see that he’s maybe made some baby steps when it comes to his two-strike approach: 

Two-strike approach

Season Pull
2008 45.6%
2009 43.4%
2010 43.9%
2011 50.6%
2012 39.3%
2013 43.4%
2014 42.1%
Total 43.8%

Another change that Dunn attempted last year was to look for a location rather than a specific pitch type. "I used to look changeup and if I didn’t get it, I didn’t swing," Dunn said. "Now I’m looking more for an area or location, not so much what pitch." This one, it seems, has stuck. Check out how he’s swung more at pitches on the inside half of the plate from righties over the last two years (the yellow means more swings, thanks to Baseball HeatMaps): 

The only difference is that now he’s bringing back the pitch type as a secondary decision. He’s still looking for a specific zone, but he’s also thinking about speeds. "When guys have a really good changeup or split, I’m trying to sit more on a speed in that location because I’ve geared up for 95 and get 85," Dunn said. "I’ll sit more changeup speed on guys with good changeups."

This has meant a few more swings on changeups over the middle and down from righties the past couple of years: 

So, in the end, it’s good that this veteran has tried these different tactics, even if they didn’t all stick. "I try stuff all the time," Dunn said. "Just because you try it, doesn’t mean you’re going to keep doing it, or it’s going to help you be successful. I just think that there’s always some little tinker or some little tweak that you might feel while you’re hitting it that will make everything else better."

What’s he working on now, then? "I’ve been working on batting right-handed," dead-panned the White Sox slugger.