Adam Dunn was the apparent master of Three True Outcomes (walks, strikeouts, and home runs) hitting for years. The approach came crashing down on him in his first season with the Chicago White Sox in 2011. This year he is back, crushing the ball, taking his walks, and striking out at the highest rate of his career. So we ask, is Dunn’s 2012 season one of the greatest displays of three true outcomes of all time?
Adam Dunn was a fun player for a long time. He struck out a lot, but he also walked at a high rate and, most of all, had crazy power. Yeah, he was a defensive liability, but in the immediate aftermath of Moneyball (the book), we (the sabernerd community) did not think about fielding all that much. When we did start thinking about fielding (and we still are, it ain’t easy), we became a bit more skeptical of “Dunn-is-awesome.” His fielding seemed to be so bad that even in seasons in which he was hitting about 40 jacks and getting on-base in more than 38 percent of his plate appearance, he was a below average player.
For years, we were told that Dunn had “old player skills.” That is, he was a slow dude with low batting average and lots of strikeouts who depended on power and walks for offensive value. Those kinds of players are supposed to decline early. But in his age-30 season with the Nationals in 2010, Dunn still hit 38 homers and had a 135 wRC+. He was a free agent, and the Chicago White Sox signed him. It seemed like a great fit — Dunn could finally be a full-time DH (his best position by far) and would be in a park that would reward his flyballing ways.
Things did not work out well in his first season in Chicago, to say the least. Dunn had always struck out at a high rate, but a 36 percent strikeout rate was abnormally elevated even by his own lofty hacking standards, even if the walk rate remained high. Dunn’s BABIP dropped from his Nationals years, but he had overcome low BABIP earlier in his career with crazy power. The problem was that in 2011 his power disappeared to a .118 ISO, and he only his 11 home runs.
Statistically, it seemed like a bump in the road — Dunn had a long history of good performances, regression, and so on. But as (I think) Dan Szymborski put it somewhere, watching him swing in 2011 was like trying to watch a massive .gif on a 386. Dunn looked, uh, done.
That is what makes 2012 so interesting. Dunn is crushing the ball again, and he is a big part of why the White Sox are leading the American League Central at the moment. Dunn already has 28 homers, but what is really stands out is the extent to which he has taken the “three true outcomes” — walks, strikeouts, and home runs — approach. It was always the basis of his game, but it seems utterly preposterous this season. He currently has almost a 19 percent walk rate, but while his strikeouts seemed like they were out of control last year, he is managing to hit (131 wRC+ so far) despite having the highest strikeout rate of his career: 36.1 percent.
Maybe he just knows American League pitchers better now and can identify and jump on pitches down the middle more quickly. Batting average by itself it not that important, but managing a successful offensive season despite only a .211 batting average is still pretty amazing. Surely Dunn’s 2012 is one of most three true outcome-reliant seasons of all-time, right? I figured it would be. Then I thought I was wrong. Then I realized I had left strikeouts out of the equation…
I tweak the traditional “Three True Outcomes” rate a bit when I calculate it. I remove intentional walks from both the numerator and denominator and include hit-by-pitches (so maybe it would be Four True Outcome? Leave me alone.). The calculation for Three True Outcomes used here is (HR+BB+HBP+SO-IBB)/(PA-IBB).
Through Wednesday’s games, Dunn leads all 2012 major leaguers with at least 300 plate appears so far with a 62 percent three true outcome (hereafter TTO) percentage. The next highest player, Mark Reynolds, is at 51.2 percent — not even close. If Dunn maintains this current rate (yeah, I know, regression to the mean, blah blah blah), it will easily be the most TTO-reliant season of the RetroSheet Era (1955 to present). For perspective, here are the current top five (500 plate appearances, minimum).
5. Jack Clark, 1987, 54.5% TTO. Clark was something of a grump while he played, and has had some somewhat notable stuff happen around him since he retired, including going bankrupt in the early 90s, allegedly due to his affection for luxury automobiles. He’s not Hall of Famer, but dude could hit, and 1987 was clearly his best season, as he hit .285/.459/.597 (174 wRC+) Clark had high strikeout rates in his later years, but they were not crazy high. In 1987 his three true outcomes where mainly due to his 35 home runs, and, as one can see, his insanely high walk rate.
4. Mark Reynolds, 2010, 55.7% TTO. Reynolds had always had contact issue, but in 2009 his power, walks, and a bit of a BABIP spike turned in a big year that earned him a new contract with Arizona. In 2010, he retained most of the power and upped his walk rate, but his defensive limitations and declining BABIP led to a trade after the season to the Orioles, where he continues his TTO ways, if not at this rate. It is always impressive to hit 32 home runs, but if you still end up with a 96 wRC+ and are not a defensive whiz, you aren’t worth much.
3. Mark McGwire, 1998 55.9% TTO. Is this season notable for any other reason? I know Jack Clark is a big fan.
2. Jack Cust 2008, 57.1% TTO.
1. Jack Cust 2007, 52.2% TTO.
Might as well group these two together. Cust is welk-known among TTO fans as being something of a “mini-Dunn.” He had many of the same characteristics, except Cust got jerked around from team-to-team and the minors before finally getting a real shot with Oakland (naturally) in 2007 when he was 28. You know, right when players with “old skills” are supposed to be declining. Back then, Cust had an even high strikeout rate than Dunn (Dunn’s last few seasons have surpassed anything Cust ever did), but he walked even more. He was an excellent hitter in 2007 and 2008, and while he had a down year in 2009, he was still useful in 2010. The whole Jack Cust Experience was fun for a few years there as an example of a discarded guy who just needed a chance. It is probably over now (Cust was released by the Astros this spring), and for me, it will be sort of sad to see Cust demoted on the TTO leader board by Dunn, given that it is Cust’s real “claim to fame.”
But, hey, there is always a chance Dunn goes on a batting average binge the last couple months of this season and lets Cust retain the TTO throne, right?