Written by Justin Zeth
Published: 09 August 2007
There is a player out there–don’t look just yet if you can’t guess his identity–whose home run production so far looks like this:
That age-27 figure is a conservative pro-rating of his current pace, of course.
We’re talking about a durable player here whose games played total the last four years has been 161, 160, 160, 109 so far. In other words, he hasn’t missed any time in five years. If he stays something close to that durable… well, let’s try to work out a fairly reasonable home run projection for him, shall we? (This is not at all statistically based. It’s just off the top of my head.)
That would leave him with a career total of: 684 home runs. And that’s assuming a significant decline at age 33. There’s room in this projection for improvement; that’s why I threw in things like “only” 38 HR at age 30. Even if the player significantly misses this projection, he’s still likely to wind up with 600 home runs or thereabouts.
Well, I know somebody’s reaching 500 three times a year these days, but 600 home runs is still an awful big number. 650 home runs is still going to be, 20-25 years from now, a near-automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame, unless you're Mark McGwire.
The player we’re discussing is Adam Dunn, and whether you already knew that without checking first probably pretty clearly defines your opinion of him. The Raccoon Lodge has turned general opinion slowly against the guy, to the point that all you hear about him this year in the media is how he strikes out too much. You’d never guess that he’s currently tied for third in all of major league baseball with 30 home runs on the year.
And that’s the thing about Dunn. He strikes out a lot and isn’t much on the bases or on the field, so the old-school-smrtball-crazed media types derisively call him the new Dave Kingman. He’s not. He’s a completely different beast, really, kind of a Mickey Tettleton on crack. He’s been in the league six years now, and the pitchers haven’t figured him out, and aren’t going to, not when it comes to preventing him from hitting home runs.
Alex Rodriguez, you might have heard, just became the youngest man ever to hit 500 home runs, cracking #500 a week past his 32nd birthday. Adam Dunn, who got to play very young (21) because he had freaking awesome power, is going to finish the season with around 240 home runs through his age-27 season. He won’t take Rodriguez’ youngest-to-500 record from him, as that would take 260 home runs in four years, but by the time he’s 32 he’s going to have around 400, maybe more (my projection above has him around 420).
Chances he hits 280 more home runs from the beginning of his age-33 season onward? Not completely negligible. The chances he hits 180 are pretty strong. That would put him at 600 home runs, career, which right now seems to be to be a decent bet for where he’ll finish.
Is it going to happen? Well, I didn’t take journalism classes, and so I don’t know how to couch my conclusions in paragraphs-deep piles of often factually-deficient fluff, so instead, I guess I’ll just have to answer the question: No, chances are it’s not going to happen.
The cases for and against Adam Dunn’s reaching 600, 650, even 700 home runs are pretty clear:
On the first hand, just take a look at Dunn’s historical comparables. Based on raw stats, the most comparable player to Adam Dunn, through age 26 (see baseball-reference), is Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry was finished as a regular at age 29. Yeah, the crack cocaine had something to do with that, but the fact is Strawberry WAS a pretty similar player, with gigantic power and (for his era) lots of strikeouts.
(Parenthetically, I seem to recall that Darryl Strawberry, despite his leading the league in strikeouts every year, was a major superstar, whereas Adam Dunn is mocked and derided on a daily basis. This is the difference between coming up in New York and coming up in Cincinnati. Baseball writers’ eagerness to give individual stars credit or blame for the quality of their teammates is–and I’m trying to be diplomatic here–fundamentally stupid beyond comprehension.)
It’s not just the white powdery stuff, though, and we know this because it’s not just Strawberry. His second-best statistical comp is Jose Canseco, who had his best season at age 26. Canseco hung around for a long time, hitting around 20-25 bombs a year, but had only two more big seasons, at ages 33-34, both by Canseco’s own admission juice-fueled.
His third-best comp is Reggie Jackson, and that paints a rosier picture. If he can hold up his production the way Reggie Jackson did, Adam Dunn is going to hit 700 home runs. But Jackson is really the exception, and Jose Canseco the rule; next after Jackson on the comp list is Troy Glaus, who is currently 30 and whose career went south immediately after his age-26 season because of injuries; and after him come Tom Brunansky, Roger Maris, and Rocky Colavito, all of whom were basically done by their early 30s.
The point is this: Adam Dunn is a player of a type, the player who really only has two tools, those being plus-plus-super-plus power and a good eye for the strike zone. Players of this type emphatically do not age well. This is what Bill James was talking about when he discussed “old player’s skills: These players are frequently finished by their early 30s, because as soon as their bat speed loses a step, the strikeouts cut into their already-precariously-low batting average, which anyone will tell you makes it hard to keep a regular job; and also, fly balls that once were home runs start getting caught at the warning track.
You look at the players who got real high on the home run list, it’s guys with more tools than Craftsman Surplus: Barry Bonds. Hank Aaron. Babe Ruth. Willie Mays. Frank Robinson. Ken Griffey Jr. All of these guys hit for average, had speed, could play defense. They weren’t just mashers; they had other skills that allowed them to have more gradual decline phases. Even Sammy Sosa had wheels and a gun in his youth. Harmon Killebrew and Reggie Jackson are the exceptions, and even they didn’t get THAT high on the list, not as high as Dunn is aiming.
PECOTA’s more sophisticated comparables list is even worse. The top seven comparables to Adam Dunn, by PECOTA:
1. Troy Glaus
2. Mike Epstein
3. Kevin Maas
4. Rob Deer
5. Boog Powell
6. Pat Burrell
7. Bob Hamelin
Ouch. I mean… ouch.
One interesting note about Troy Glaus, who is the one guy PECOTA agrees with the raw stats about as very comparable to Adam Dunn: Glaus, like Dunn, was very durable early in his career, almost never missing a game. Then he tore up his shoulder and lost his power. He got some of it back a couple years later, but he’s not the home run-hitting beast he was in his youth. That’s one of the problems with super-power-nothing-else guys: It’s not hard for them to suffer a power-draining injury that pretty much finishes them, because without their usual power they can’t adjust, and thus can’t play. It’s possible that a guy stays healthy his whole career, and then he’s Reggie Jackson or Harmon Killebrew. But the odds are stacked against it.
PECOTA’s pretty crazy here — I mean, really, Kevin Maas? Bob Hamelin??? — but its opinion is clear: Dunn has very little chance of getting into his mid-30s with his power intact. PECOTA doesn’t even like his chances of getting into his early
30s with his power intact.
But there’s another thing, and this is the pro-Dunn side's turn: PECOTA also features a Similarity Index, which tells us, at a glance, how easy it is to find players just like the guy we’re looking at. And it works pretty well: Jack Wilson has a Similarity Index of 69 (out of 100), telling us what we already knew: Baseball players just like Jack Wilson, historically, are a dime a dozen. Conversely, Roger Clemens has a Similarity Index of 0, because nobody in major league history is even remotely comparable to Roger Clemens at age 45. Very nearly no one in history was even still a starting pitcher in the major leagues at age 45.
Adam Dunn’s Similarity Index is 5. I haven’t researched it exhaustively, but I would guess that’s the lowest SI of any player Dunn’s age. Simply put, there has never been anyone in history quite like Adam Dunn, with this kind of consistent power and durability at this young an age. And that’s the argument in favor of Dunn’s eventually reaching 650 or 700 home runs: It’s tough to use comparables, because, while we can discuss the generalities of skill sets and the players who are most
comparable to him, no one is really comparable to Adam Dunn.
There are an impossible number of variables conspiring to obfuscate our attempts to predict the future of any 27-year-old, and this one proves especially tough. Dunn could mess up his back or his shoulder or his hip and be done by 30. He could level off and just hit 40 a year for the next few years and then decline, in which case he finishes around 530, 540 home runs, still a heck of a number, but no longer a number that screams “all-time great” to you.
It’s also important that Dunn is only going to be a Cincinnati Red for one more year. Chances he’ll re-sign with Cincinnati are lower than the chances Dusty Baker publishes a 9-article series of thoughtful, erudite pieces detailing and analyzing the dangers of overusing your pitchers. And where Dunn’s playing his home games starting in 2009 is going to have a tremendous impact on the career home run total we project for him.
On one hand, Dunn could go to Washington, where he’s been telling people he’d love to play, especially if Austin Kearns is there. I don’t know anything about what kind of park Washington’s new home will be, but I know the current one will relieve Dunn of 5-7 home runs a year.
On the other extreme, Dunn could go to Texas, which is where he's from, and which is going to be in the market for a first baseman. And in Texas, Dunn could hit 55, 60 home runs a year for several years if he remains healthy. AmeriQuestConglomeratedIncorporatedCorp Field might be the very best home run park in the major leagues, even better than Coors, and Dunn is the practically perfect player to take advantage of that. Texas has money to burn, and that would really be his smartest career move. If Dunn shows strongly next year and then goes to Texas, 700 home runs becomes a possibility for him. As with the Open Letter to Alex Rodriguez I wrote last month, I wonder how much free agent baseball players take into account the home park they’ll be moving to when they make their decision on which contract to sign.
If Adam Dunn ends up with Reggie Jackson’s career–he’s right on track for it so far–then he’s going to end up well clear of 600 home runs. It’s a big if
, and the random nature of the sport makes it a long shot for anyone to show the kind of clean health record that takes, as Ken Griffey Jr. has demonstrated. But if he clears 600, he will force the Raccoon Lodge that has, so far, railed against him at every turn to elect him to the Hall of Fame, which I personally would find wonderfully amusing.
The point of this piece hasn’t been to try to argue that Adam Dunn has a really strong chance to go down as one of the most prolific home run hitters in history. He has a chance
, yes, but any rational being would bet against it, just because, you know, it’s hard to hit a home run, much less do it 600 times. What I want you to understand, though, is that the media is just flat-out wrong about this guy. He’s an offensive force and a great deal of fun to watch hit. He’s just like Ryan Howard, who the media fawned over all last year, only he’s the same age as Ryan Howard–precisely ten days older than Howard, to be exact–and has already established his staying power.
Adam Dunn is getting a horrendously raw deal from the Raccoon Lodge, and anyone out there that’s reading this, please, join me in saying so. It’s not that I care about Adam Dunn, personally, so much. It’s that the Plaschkes of the world should really not be permitted to run around ignorantly slamming players this good to promote their own anti-slide-rule agendas. Promote yours! Declare without shame: Adam Dunn is a really, seriously good baseball player. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise deserves nothing but ridicule, now that public tar-and-feathering is illegal.