What’s there to say about Adam Dunn’s 2011 season that hasn’t already been said? With an fWAR of -2.9 over 496 plate appearances, Dunn had one of the worst seasons in baseball history and recorded career lows in nearly every offensive category. He finished the season with a triple slash line of .159/.292/.277, wRC+ of 59, .118 ISO, 27 extra-base hits, and a measly 42 RBI.
Along the way, the big man amassed three golden sombreros, putting him in a seven-way tie for first place in Major League Baseball. He picked up his first on May 21 against the Dodgers and then followed it up with his second on May 26 against the Blue Jays. The final sombrero came exactly a month later at the hands of the Washington Nationals.
Absolutely nothing went Dunn’s way in 2011; he hit like crap and was an utter disappointment in his first season with the White Sox. There wasn’t a single moment where it seemed as though Dunn might turn the corner. He never hit that dramatic walk-off bomb in front of a sold out home crowd or had a multi-home run game to rally the troops in his favor.
So what can be attributed to Dunn’s abysmal season? Well, his 35.7% strikeout rate is a good but obvious starting point. In 415 at-bats this season, Dunn set a franchise record by fanning 177 times. And although his penchant for striking out is as much of a defining trait as his longball potential, nothing pointed towards a complete offensive collapse.
In 2010, Dunn absolutely torched fastballs, as evidenced by a 32.1 wFB. This past season, however, he posted a wFB of -8.5 (!), which is easily the worst of his storied career. His inability to square up fastballs in turn damaged his approach at the plate, causing him to struggle mightily against offspeed pitches: -7.2 wSL (0.7 in 2010), -3.6 wCT (-2.5 in 2010), and -5.8 wCH (-3.9 in 2010) – all career lows.
Dunn also recorded a 57.8% O-Contact% (contact percentage on pitches thrown outside the strikezone), which, when supplemented by his 9.6% HR/FB rate, explains why he was seldom feared by opposing pitchers; they could comfortably attack him within the strikezone without the fear of 450-foot repercussions.
Here is Dunn’s ‘Swing Pitch Type’ chart from this past season:
While his selectiveness was decent—he did manage to coax 75 walks (15.1%)—Dunn simply was unable to consistently drive pitches within the strikezone, something that he’d never really struggled with. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Dunn failed to provoke an intentional walk all season for the first time in his 11-year career.
Yet, what Dunn’s season indicates, more than anything else, is a total lack of comfort and confidence at the dish – a realm of the game that cannot be quantified. Sure we can delve through endless statistics in search of some type of rationalization, but there is no true, metric-based explanation for why a player who averaged nearly 40 home runs and 100 RBI per season would suddenly hit his way out of a starting line up.
As any hitter will tell you, there’s nothing more detrimental to one’s performance than a waning level of confidence at the plate. Once that confidence begins to waver, a hitter suddenly becomes susceptible to a slew of problems – some old, some new. After scuffling through the first month of the season, Dunn never quite turned the corner as everyone expected he would, including himself. Instead, his season spiraled out of control, as he absorbed the majority of the blame for the White Sox struggles, which in turn compounded his own personal issues.