Way back in the year 2001, Adam Dunn was one of the more hyped prospects to show up on the major league scene. A star quarterback in high school, Dunn looked to have a promising future in college football at the University of Texas, Austin, but the addition of Chris Simms to the program and the coaxing of the Cincinnati Reds led Dunn to focus solely on baseball. After shredding the minor leagues, the massive Dunn (6′ 6″, 285 lbs) was called up midway through the ’01 season by the Reds, and a lot of prospect mavens believed he had the potential to be the league’s next great pure power hitter.
I recall an incident in a fantasy keeper league I was in that year, when Dunn first got called up. Being a keeper league, Dunn obviously had oodles of value at that point, and managers were on him like sharks on chum. Eventually, some guy essentially blew his load trading for Dunn, then posted a breathless message on the league’s board that Dunn would (I shit you not) become the first 50/50 player in major league history. As in, fifty home runs, and fifty stolen bases. This rant was mostly in all caps, of course. His prediction for Dunn, in case you were wondering, never came to fruition.
The reason I bring all of this up, of course, is because Dunn was acquired by the Oakland Athletics yesterday morning for minor league relief pitcher Nolan Sanburn and some cash to help cover the rest of Dunn’s contract. Dunn was brought in to help the slumping A’s offense and he introduced himself quite nicely to A’s fans, launching a towering home run in his first at-bat this afternoon. The A’s are hoping Dunn’s intimidating power bat can inject some life into a suddenly moribund offense that hit just .223/.301/.345 in August.
While Dunn never lived up to my former fantasy colleague’s rather outlandish expectations, he has had a very successful fourteen-year career. Exactly how successful, is a matter of some debate, however. Dunn has blasted 460 home runs in his career (and counting), and he’s had seven seasons with 40+ homers (and two more with 38). Any way you look at it, he’s been one of the most prolific home run hitters of the last decade.
He’s also been one of the most polarizing players in recent memory. In some circles Dunn is seen as a sabermetric darling. In others, he’s viewed as everything that was wrong with baseball in the homer-happy 2000’s. Dunn is one of the most famous Three True Outcome hitters in history, with almost exactly 50% of his career plate appearances ending in a home run, a walk, or a strikeout. This would seem to make him a hero of the sabermetric, mom’s basement stereotype who stays up all night crunching numbers in his underwear between bouts of WOW. Despite some low batting averages, Dunn’s lifetime OBP is .365, and that has generally endeared him to the saber-crowd.
However, there’s also the bad. Dunn broke Bobby Bonds’s single season strikeout record in 2004 (Mark Reynolds has since blown Dunn’s record away), and his strikeout prowess has ranged from a mere nuisance in some years to downright crippling in others. His inability to make contact has led to some perennially low batting averages, which many scribes have argued marginalizes his value. In fact, a number of analysts called his 2012 season (he hit 41 home runs while batting .204/.333/.468) one of the least-valuable 40-home run seasons of all time.
There’s also the issue of his defense. Just click here and look at his work in the outfield, and fight the urge to go take a long, contemplative shower. His glovework in the outfield makes small children weep, and his work at first base isn’t a whole lot better. So, basically, he has zero defensive value, and probably negative value. He’s like a pure scorer/non-defender in basketball who can score 20 points in his sleep while giving up 30. He’s an American League-born player who has unfortunately spent the majority of his career in the NL, and that has helped take away a lot of his overall value as a player. If you really want an example of the horror show that is Adam Dunn in the outfield, take a gander at his attempt to tame right field at AT&T Park last month. Yeah.
So his proponents point to his impressive home run totals and bushels of walks, while his detractors point to his miserable defense and low batting averages. One camp has him as underappreciated, while the other has him as an overvalued lout who is a product of a dying era in baseball. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but Dunn certainly has garnered strong and loud arguments from both sides over the years.
One fact can’t be denied, though: Dunn is one of the most interesting players in baseball (and who can forget this?). The fact that he initiates such a heated debate among fans shows that he is one of the most colorful players around, and it’s no surprise that he finds himself now on an A’s team that has prided itself on collecting an wide assortment of misfits over the past few years. In fact, Dunn is like a decade too late to this team; he would have fit right in on the Matt Stairs/John Jaha A’s of the late-90’s, early-aughts.
The A’s got themselves a seriously flawed player, but one who will still be useful for them down the stretch. He’ll be useful for the simple fact that he’s a presence. The A’s lineup fell into a funk the minute they traded Yoenis Cespedes. Whether that is causation or coincidence is debatable, but the A’s clearly sacrificed some modicum of offensive firepower in building their imposing starting rotation. There’s something to be said for the mental aspect of simply having a player with massive home run pop in the lineup. I’d argue that the Giants got that lift with Mike Morse this season. With Cespedes gone, the A’s lost some of that subconscious boost. With the acquisition of Dunn, they’ve gained it back.
As opposed to Cespedes, Dunn is more of an Oakland type of player. Like Dunn, Cespedes had power out the wazoo, but his plate discipline had deteriorated since his rookie year, and that’s likely what soured the A’s on him. Even with memories of Moneyball fading, the A’s still love them some OBP, so Dunn should slot right in and look right at home in a patient lineup that leads the American League in walks and runs scored.
To some, the acquisition of Dunn reeked of a panic move. That might not be totally untrue, but for the price of a single-A relief pitcher, heck, why not? Again, the A’s have made it clear with the Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija trades that they’re all in this season. If it takes a Dunn to revive the offense and get the team rolling in September and October, it’s worth it.