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The Vicar of the Three True Outcomes

June 12, 2010

Hey bro, you going to the Tri-Delt party?

I’ll preface this with saying that I’m a little obsessed with Adam Dunn, for a couple of reasons. The major one being that physically, he’s as close to “Evil Baseball Player™” as I can imagine. You know, how during 1980s movies, there’d be a hulking, hirsute slugger who’d epitomize “the other,” the bad guy? Like in Major League, the chaw-spitting Heywood who terrorized the Indians and Charlie Sheen. Ironically, he was played by former MLB pitcher Pete Vukovich, but you get my point. Dunn is that guy. Conor Jackson has that look. So did Nick Swisher for a while. Guys who have both a five o’ clock shadow and a smirk, indicating something north of mischief but south of date rape.

But also, lookit. Adam Dunn is just a fun guy to watch. He’s so often referred to in discussions of the Three True Outcomes at the plate – strikeout, walk, or homer. So watching him at Nationals Stadium last week, I thought it would be quirking to take a look at where Dunn will end up on the career ranks of the TTO categories.

Strikeouts. Mark Reynolds gets all the hot press about it these days. He has obliterated the 200-K mark twice already, and is on pace to do it again. But Dunn. Whew. He’s currently on pace for 186 strikeouts this season, which would put his career total (through his age 30 year) at 1,619 whiffs. Derek Jeter, who started the season 33 strikeouts ahead of him, in 4,400 more plate appearances than him will be passed by Dunn most likely this weekend. Assuming the other active players stay ahead of him, Dunn will end the season in 29th place on the all-time list.

It goes without saying that to make it onto the top 50 career strikeout leaders, you have to be pretty damn good. To make it onto the top 50 career anythings, you have to be pretty damn good, as it denotes longevity and talent enough to stay in a lineup. And of course, the list is littered with Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and should-be Hall of Famers (oh, if only Dale Murphy hadn’t kept playing because he loved the game so). Here’s something though, and probably obvious: Troy Glaus’s recent two whiffs moved him ahead of Babe Ruth. The Bambino is now the 94th player on the career strikeout list. He and Jimmie Foxx are the only people on the top 100 who played pre-World War II – and as soon as Jorge Posada fans a couple more times, it’ll only be Ruth.

Now that Junior Griffey has retired, the other active players ahead of Dunn in Ks are Jim Thome (39 years old), Mike Cameron (37), Ol’ Whistling Bat (34, and aging precipitously), MannyBManny (38), the oddly-resurrected Jim Edmonds (40) and Andruw Jones (33), and Bobby Abreu (36). Bless his heart, Thome doesn’t have enough games left in him to break Reggie’s all-time record. He’d have to play essentially every game this year and next to be close, and I can’t see an American League team giving him that many at-bats.

Emperor of Fan City

So what about Reggie Jackson, the Emperor of Fan City? By his second year, the Straw that Stirred™ was very good relative to the league. In his third season, when he was 23, he was arguably the best player in the game (or at least had the best season, far and away). In his first nine full seasons, through his 30th birthday, Jackson finished in the top 10 for adjusted OPS (OPS+) seven times, and in the top ten for position player WAR (wins above replacement) eight times. He was still great after that – were it not for George Brett’s unreal 1980, Jackson would’ve earned a second MVP – but not quite what he was through his 20s. And all the while Jackson chugged along, he led the AL in strikeouts in four consecutive seasons (1968-71), and finished in the top 7 every single year after that until 1986.

However, Reggie’s K-rate follows a predictable curve for an extremely good hitter. From ages 21-25, he would strikeout once every 3.94 plate appearances. From age 26 to 30 (potentially the athlete’s peak), he struck out far less frequently at every 5.21 PAs. From 31 to 35, 4.72 PAs, and from 36 to the end of his career at 41, back down to 3.93 PAs. Roughly a cosine curve.

Dunn’s not trending that way. From 21-25, he averaged 3.80 PAs per K. And from 26-30, he’s averaging 3.75 PAs per K. If Dunn does end this season as his pace suggests, he’ll be 382 strikeouts ahead of Jackson’s pace, and a little under 1000 strikeouts away from breaking the record. Dunn doesn’t show any signs of changing his swing or altering his K-rate, so the only question will be his longevity and value. If Dunn continues to play through his late 30s, he should shatter Mr. October’s mark by 2018.

And even with players striking out at large clips, the only other player younger than Dunn on the top 300 is Ryan Howard, who’s finished ahead of Dunn in Ks the last four years. But you know what? Howard’s ten days younger and currently trails Dunn by 560 strikeouts. Miguel Cabrera, who recently turned 27 is 642 Ks behind Dunn…but he’d still need to average 213 Ks a season to get to Dunn’s level, and his K-rate is getting better, not worse.

So back to Mark Reynolds. Reynolds is a little less than four years younger than Dunn, and has an absolutely ghoulish K-rate. I also find it terribly hard to believe that Mark Reynolds, despite his 44 homers last season and impressive slugging, will have the same career trajectory and staying power as Dunn. While his career batting average is the same as Dunn’s, his OBP is significantly worse. Though let’s all, just for a minute, gape in wonder at Reynolds’ career 3.04 PAs/K. Lord a’mighty.

Really, the question is can Dunn stay healthy and good enough that the Nationals or American League team X continue to play him? Dunn’s 30 years old, and has played at least 152 games every year since his first full season except for 2003. Now that he’s firmly ensconced at first base, he really doesn’t need to run at all. Which is probably just fine with the Nationals, considering the train wreck Dunn was in the outfield.

However, Dunn has those “Old Player Skills” that Bill James mentions in his write-up of Tom Brunansky in his New Historical Baseball Abstract of a few years ago. Essentially, James’s thesis states that players possessing power and plate discipline, but lacking in batting average and speed, tend to peak earlier and fade faster than those  who are the opposite. (Granted, James’s study concerned outfielders, but Dunn did “play” there for a while.) We’ll have to see what happens with Dunn, who’s now at first.

WALKS: Despite his current batting average, Dunn’s career BA is around .250. But his career on-base percentage is 130 points better than that. Because he walks. And walks a lot.

Dunn’s not going to break Barry Bonds’ preposterous base-on-balls record, nor is he going to reach the 2,000 mark shared by Henderson, the Babe, or Teddy Ballgame. But he is going to be top 10. Halfway through his age-30 season, Dunn’s got 943 walks. He’s on pace to be right around the 1,000 walk mark at the end of the year. (Note: this could be Dunn’s worst year as far as walks go, and I imagine that’s partly because the guy hitting behind him, Josh Willingham, is having a tremendous season.)

By season’s end, Dunn will have moved into roughly 113th place, right around Dale Murphy. Even a conservative estimate of 500 more walks following this season will place him in fairly heady company, ending up in the top 25 of the category. The only other active player younger than Dunn in the top 500 of career walks is, of course, Albert Pujols. Pujols is two months younger than Dunn, and 92 walks – a full season – behind Dunn. Pujols is a more complete player, but will probably have better protection behind him in St. Louis. Well, at least for the next couple of years, until either St. Louis can’t pay anybody else on their payroll, and a bowl of potato salad is hitting behind Pujols. But regardless of the order,, they’re both ending up in the top 25 of career walks.

Home Runs: As of June 11th, Dunn and David Ortiz were tied with 329 home runs, good for 93rd place on the career list, two behind Hank Greenberg. While he logged five  straight seasons of 40+ homers, those years are most likely behind him. The Big Donkey is still good for 30-something power at least for a couple of years as the power sag begins to set in. If he hits an additional 20 this year, he’ll need 151 more for the once-magical 500-homer threshold.

Just...one more...save

I would imagine 500 to be tantalizingly within his grasp, like Indiana Jones reaching for the Holy Grail as the cliff collapses. Or, more to the point, like Trevor Hoffman trying (miserably) for his 600th save. Assuming the newly-revitalized Andruw Jones and Pujols beat Dunn to 500, he’d be the 28th member of the group.

God. Twenty-eight members of the 500-homer club. That’s just weird. It used to be such a hallowed club. Poor Harmon Killebrew.

The Future:  A decade from now, Babe Ruth will have been pushed out of the top 100 of strikeouts, but remain in the top five of walks and homers. Reggie will be second in Ks, top 20 in homers, and top 35 in walks (he retired at 1st, 6th, and 22nd, respectively). Manny Ramirez and Thome will be top 10 in all three. A-Rod will be top 25 in walks, and top five in strikeouts and homers.

As for Dunn: Well, when he retires, he’ll be 1st in strikeouts, about 20th in walks, and 28th in homers. That’s good standing, but in actual baseball value, Dunn’s not in the other guys’ league. After all, Dunn, who’s been an All-Star just once, and garnered MVP votes just twice (finishing an ignoble 28th and 26th), played defense that could be defined as punishable by most courts of law. He currently ranks just 48th among active players in WAR (with eight players younger ahead of him), and 562nd career. Even if the second half of his career replicates his first, he still won’t be within smelling distance of either Reggie or Thome. However, he will be around the level of Tony Perez and Fred McGriff, both cusp Coop-townites.

Unfortunately for Dunn, even if he reaches that once-Holy Grail of 500 homers, he’ll have a tough time getting into the Hall without more knockout years. Despite the possible impending Golden Age for the Nationals with JHS and Outfielder nee Catcher Bryce Harper, Dunn’s presence on underperforming teams cost his counting stats heavily.

If the Nats finish over .500, it’ll be only the second time in his career that Dunn will have played for a winning team. The 2005 Reds were a good run-scoring team – not coincidentally, Junior Griffey’s last good year – but among Cincy’s other years and Washington’s, Dunn wasn’t getting a lot of help. For what he does have control over, Dunn’s career adjusted OPS stands at 133: Good enough to be tied with Orlando Cepeda and Billy Williams (yay), but also John Kruk and Danny Tartabull (boo).

The “Three True Outcomes” label isn’t generally a great label for a player to have, considering it’s used to describe solely-offensive players like Jack Cust. Dunn’s often referred to as Dave Kingman with more walks, though that’s not really an accurate label,. After all, those “more walks” equal an 81 point difference in on-base percentage; and Dunn’s career wins-above-replacement is already more than 40% better than Kingman’s.

If Dunn faces that uphill battle into the shrine, the least we can do is admit his imperfections, and crown him The Vicar of the Three True Outcomes.

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