Arizona Dunn-Backs

August 11, 2008

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Street Reporter

Arizona Dunn-Backs

Arizona has just traded for Adam Dunn, reports Baseball Digest Daily, bolstering their outfield to offset injuries to Eric Byrnes and Justin Upton, as well as to counteract the Dodgers' recent acquisition of Manny Ramirez. That Dunn passed through waivers is both an indication of his big salary for the year, as well as his undervalued status among GMs.

Dunn, like the Oakland A's Jack Cust, is a member of the Three True Outcomes (TTO) club. That is, each plate appearance typically ends either in a walk, a strikeout, or a home run. Only the whiffs really hurt a team, but the result of this marks him as a low-BA guy, and shows the limitation of this antiquated statistic.  But it also shows his all-or-nothing philosophy at the plate, a guy who doesn't know how to cut down on his swing with two strikes and hit the ball softly the other way.

Dunn's batting average this year is .233, but his on-base percentage is .376, an extreme split that shows both the result of all his walks (80 thus far) and how those walks diminish his at-bats (walks don't count as at-bats)--and, thus, magnify his strikeouts (and strikeouts do count as at-bats).

It's true that he's pretty good at striking out, too, with 120 thus far, and he should get near his typical 180-190 range. When he struck out 194 times in 2006, he almost broke his own record of 195, set two years before. In 2004, he also became the second player in team history to score 100 runs, walk 100 times, and drive in 100. Joe Morgan, the first Red to do this, also did it without striking out 100 times (in 1976, when he accomplished this, Joe struck out 41 times). When Dunn did it the next year, too, he was the only Red to do it in consecutive years.

What can you count on from Dunn? His average season is .247/380/.520, with 40 HRs, 96 RBI and 101 runs scored. He averages 113 walks and 181 whiffs, an EYE ratio of .62, which is decent enough, and a .520 SLG is very good from a corner outfielder. He also averages 29 doubles, meaning about half his total hits (137 in an average season) go for extra bases. He's hit exactly 40 HRs in the past three seasons, and 46 in 2004. These are all very nice numbers--not top-rank, but top ten when you take them all together, and very good things to have in a corner outfielder.

But that massive spread between BA and OBP is what most people unconsciously focus on, as well as his lackluster defense. He actually cut down on his strikeouts last season (165), but also dropped back a bit on his walks, too (101, down from 112). Since both affect his ABs, the ratio of PA (plate appearance, which ignores walks and sac flies) is more important to watch:

  • Year           PA/K                PA/BB           EYE
  • 2008          3.87                5.80              .67
  • 2007          3.83                6.26              .61
  • 2006          3.52                6.10              .57
  • 2005          3.99                5.89              .68
  • 2004          3.49                6.49              .54


A high PA/K is good, indicating a longer time between strikeouts, while a low PA/BB is good, indicating a frequency of walks. Looking at this, you can see it's a seesaw for Dunn--in years he gets a lot of strikeouts, he gets correspondingly fewer walks, and vice versa. Some of this is mere statistics; if he's not striking out, he's walking, and vice versa.

His EYE ratios, however, tell us something slightly different. By measuring the ratio between walks and strikeouts, they tell us how well a player can read and react to a strike. An EYE above 1.00 is the exclusive territory of hitters like Pujols or Bonds, while .40 is the floor of acceptability, and .60 is around average. Dunn's EYE ratios for those 190+K years are the lowest possible--in spite of relatively high walk totals--while the years where he cut down on his strikeouts is reflected in above average EYE.

So when Adam learns some patience, it pays off, something ill-measured by batting average. His batting averages and OBP for those years above:

  • Year        BA       OBP
  • 2008      .233    .376
  • 2007      .264    .386
  • 2006      .234    .365
  • 2005      .247    .387
  • 2004      .266    .388


While his worst full OBP and BA year correspond with his worst K year (2006), the BA is otherwise unrelated, with this year the lowest so far (in spite of some of his best walk numbers and fairly standard-to-low K numbers). His best year--04 and 07--reflect very different K and EYE years, and show that BA is often a product of where the ball falls, where (and how) the defense plays, and other things uncontrollable by the batter. 

His OBP, on the other hand, remains relatively steady, within 23 rather than 33 points, and more tied to BA fluctuations than PA/K and PA/BB ratios. If you look at the differences between BA and OBP, you'll see it's widest (around 140 in 05 and 08) when his EYE is best, and narrowest (around 120) when it's not. This is because OBP is somewhat tied to BA (and therefore related to the uncontrollable stuff mentioned above) but can be boosted much more by a good batting eye.

While I'm not suggesting we begin to measure the difference between OBP and BA as an official stat, it does show that BA is far more arbitrary, while leaps in OBP tend to measure more accurately a better eye at the plate, as it reflects guys who can take a walk. BA tends to really hurt a guy with a ton of strikeouts, while OBP shows that a rise in walks is a good thing.

In closing, let's look at the NL Leader in Ks. Ryan Howard (who broke Dunn's single-season K record last year with 199) leads the league with 149, eclipsing Dunn's meager 120. Howard's line for the year: .240/.327/.496, 32 HRs (tied with Dunn), 98 RBI.

Now, it's true that Howard's offensive peaks (58 HRs, .659 SLG in 2006; 47 HRs, .584 in 2007) have been higher than Dunn's, but his BA/OBP splits haven't been as strong (in the 120-130 range both years), since he doesn't walk as much. And Howard's certainly having an "off" year, when compared to his promise of the past two years. But nobody talks about these guys in the same sentence, preferring to disparage Dunn and laud Howard.

Think of JP Ricciardi's comments a few weeks back about Dunn's apparent lack of passion for the game (for which he's apologized) and the comparative lack of pubilcity for Dunn. Granted, the Philles are contenders, but isn't putting up Dunn's numbers on a non-contending team even harder?

Bottom line is that Dunn should help the D-backs offensively, he shouldn't hurt them too much defensively, and gives him a shot at playing for a contender, which will at least erase one of those qualifiers above. To anyone who's plowed through these stats and prose to get to this point, I hope I've shown you not only that Dunn is undervalued, but that BA is overvalued, arguments that are definitely related. 

The next time you're looking at a player (or reading my blog) feel free to blip past the parts about BA, that first line in the three-stat line I so often use to describe a guy's performance. If you look at it at all, merely note the difference between it and OBP to see how patient a guy is. 

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