I think we need to start paying more attention to something. Adam Dunn is on his way to doing something that hasn’t happened since Babe Ruth did it in 1927. No, it isn’t “sixty homers by a big oaf while wearing black and white/gray” — he’s on pace for closer to fifty of those. Rather, Dunn could be the first in 85 years to lead the entire Major Leagues in each of the “Three True Outcomes” categories: walks, strikeouts and home runs.
Through Sunday (though he’s done nothing to improve his standing in any of the categories so far as I write this on Monday evening, managing to put the ball in play
twice thrice four times in a row), Dunn was leading both leagues in all three categories, and by a relatively healthy margin: his 31 home runs are three better than the four guys tied for second, his 77 walks lead Ben Zobrist by ten, and his 150 strikeouts lead Carlos Pena by twenty (it’s very possible that Dunn would end the season in the top ten in that category if he didn’t strike out again all year). Dunn, through Sunday, was on pace for 50 homers, 124 walks and a record-smashing 241 strikeouts.
Leading the American League in all three categories would by itself be an admirable feat. As Jonah Keri (with help from Elias) noted a month ago, a Three True Outcomes Triple Crown (TTOTC) has historically been half as common as the old BA/HR/RBI Triple Crown, having been done just eight times in history. Leading both leagues in all categories, though? That’s been done by exactly one guy. Until now.
Here’s the list of single-league TTOTCs, per Jonah/Elias:
It’s pretty easy to see the progression here. For the first few years of the Babe Ruth era, nobody else hit anything like Babe Ruth — he was out-homering entire teams, so he didn’t see many strikes, and he was the only guy willing to swing hard enough to miss now and then (putting up strikeout totals that would be average-ish today). He missed the TTOTC by a couple strikeouts in 1920 and ’21, had an off-year in ’22, then led the entire Major Leagues in ’23 and by a ton in ’24. He had another off-year in ’25 and then led by a bundle in homers and walks (but not strikeouts) in ’26, then won the last MLB TTOTC in 1927 (Lou Gehrig came in second in the bigs in all three categories).
It was around then, though, that Ruth starting coming back toward mortality, and that other teams really started to figure out that they needed to try to play his way to compete; Ruth led the AL in all three categories in ’28, but the NL’s Hack Wilson had him by plenty in strikeouts, and then when Wilson won the NL TTOTC in 1930, Ruth beat him in walks. It’s a bit surprising that Jimmie Foxx never managed it — he led in HR four times, walks twice and strikeouts seven times, just never all at once — and of course the next really dominant hitter considered strikeouts a failure of the highest magnitude. It’s continued to become increasingly hard for any one hitter to dominate in any set of statistical categories, and TTO is no exception. So Mantle (who it’s a bit surprising didn’t do it more than once) had the only TTOTC in the 53-year span between Wilson’s and Schmidt’s. Schmidt was the first guy to do it while striking out more than he walked.
Increasingly since the early nineties, players up and down the lineup have been both walking and striking out more often than they used to, and for a while there, everyone was hitting home runs too. And, of course, there are nearly twice as many teams now as there were when Ruth, Wilson and Mantle played. So with so much competition, it’s probably unsurprising that nobody has won a TTOTC in either league for 26 years.
Since 1986, a handful have led their league in both homers and walks (Bonds, McGwire, Bautista, Ortiz), but generally, those guys have have controlled the strike zone too well to strike out among the league’s worst. A few have led in both walks and strikeouts (Giambi, Thome, Cust), but they’ve tended to have good but not great power in those seasons — with so many guys hitting 40+ home runs, you’re not likely to be among the league’s elite power sources if you’re whiffing 150-200 times a season. Thome did have one year (2003) in which he led the league in both homers and strikeouts, but his walks were down that year; Cecil Fielder did the same thing in 1991, but he was never much of a walker at all. Dunn himself has been the King of the Three True Outcomes more or less since the term was invented, but he’s never led his league in homers, only once in walks, and hadn’t led in strikeouts since 2006. The closest to doing what Dunn is threatening to do this season was probably Giambi, who hit 41 HR in 2003 to go with his league-leading BB and K marks…but that was good for just 4th in the AL, behind league leader A-Rod.
I’ll go ahead and call it now — barring injury, Dunn is going to lead the Majors in walks and strikeouts. I don’t see a reason to think Ben Zobrist is going to walk 11 more times than Dunn will for the rest of this year, or Carlos Pena 16 more times, and Pena and Curtis Granderson certainly aren’t striking out 31 and 39 more times, respectively. It’ll be much harder to hold off each of the six hitters who are within four of Dunn’s 31 homers, but that’s all he has to do to be the first MLB TTOTC winner in 85 years. Which, you might argue, is totally trivial and pointless, strikeouts generally being considered negative things while the other two categories are positives. But he’ll be the only person to have done a certain thing in the whole history of the world besides Babe Ruth (and will have had to overcome much longer odds than Ruth ever did to make it happen), and how many guys can say that?
More than anything, though, I think this is one more way to highlight what a spectacularly bizarre player Adam Dunn has had. His game is built on long periods of waiting, punctuated intermittently by sudden and extreme acts of violence. He waits for his pitch, and if he doesn’t get it, he takes ball four or strike three and waits for his next turn at bat. If he does get it, he swings as hard as it’s possible to swing, and a lot of times, he misses, and a lot of times, he destroys a perfectly good baseball. And that’s all he does; anything else feels like a freak accident. Ask Jack Cust how easy it is to make a big-league career out of doing those things, and only those things. It’s a bit of a Three True Outcomes world these days, but we’ve never seen anybody before, and might never see anybody again, who does it as extremely or as successfully as Dunn does it. The TTOTC would be nothing more than a curiosity, but it’d be a fitting apex to a historically curious career.