One of the better stories in Chicago sports this year has been the resurgence of Adam Dunn. Last year Dunn was not the worst player in baseball history, but by Dave Cameron’s calculations, he had the worst season by a good player in baseball history: “Adam Dunn might not be having the worst single season of the last 50 years, but he’s perhaps having the most inexplicably awful season over that time frame.”
It’s not that Dunn is exactly back to his old self. As we would all one day wish for, he’s become a deeper, truer version of his old self. He’s even more of a power hitter, with a career-high .311 ISO (in his rookie season, his ISO was .316, but over only 66 games). His home run/fly ball ratio is the highest in the league at 35.8 percent, by far a career high. He’s walking at the third-highest rate of his career, and the highest since 2008. He still has more home runs than singles, which is unsustainable but pretty awesome.
Dunn is striking out in 37.2 percent of his plate appearances: 121 strikeouts in 325 PAs. In second place is Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates’ can’t-miss prospect-turned-misses-a-lot project, at 32.5 percent. As Bogira notes, Dunn’s on pace to strike out 261 times, which would break the major league record by thirty-eight strikeouts.
But perhaps this is unfair to Dunn. He’s played in all 75 of the White Sox’s games this year, and at 325 plate appearances, has averaged 4.33 per game. He’s had fewer than four in only three games. Of players with more, only Adrian Gonzalez regularly hits below first or second in the order, and he’s been aided by some long extra-inning games. In short, Dunn’s played almost every inning available to him this whole season, and is on track for 702 plate appearances in 162 games.
Dunn’s a hardy player—when you strike out, walk, and hit home runs as often as he does, you don’t have to run as much or as fast—and has finished just shy of 162 games seven times in his career. But he’s never actually played every game, and he’s never broken 700 plate appearances. In seasons that he’s played 152 games or more, i.e. ones without serious injury, he’s averaged 664 plate appearances, which is a fair enough number to work with.
If Dunn gets 664 plate appearances and continues to strike out at the rate he’s doing so now, he’ll finish with a mere 247 Ks, a merciful 11 percent higher than the existing record.
But we can be even more fair to Dunn. Not everyone has the tenacity to play a whole season while striking out nearly four out of every ten trips to the plate.* Sometimes they get benched; sometimes they hit the DL. So if you set the minimum plate appearances in a season back to 300, a reasonable comparison to Dunn’s 325, you get one man, whom you will probably only remember if you collected baseball cards: Melvin Nieves, a power-hitting outfielder-DH for the Tigers who played in 116 games in 1997, and spent two weeks on the disabled list. He hit 20 home runs and drove in 64 runs, respectable totals for a guy batting in the sixth slot for 70 percent of a season.
Nieves also struck out 38.8 percent of the time, finishing with 157 strikeouts in 405 plate appearances.
That’s fewer than the 502 plate appearances necessary to qualify for the batting title—and thus, one presumes, the opposite—but who knows how history might have turned out had Nieves not missed two weeks (and that, tragically, was not for an injury). So we can say that Dunn is on pace to have the most strikeouts in a season; we can even say that he’s still on pace given a realistic number of games and plate appearances. But less than halfway through the season, Melvin Nieves reigns as the superior strikeout artist.
Related: One curious thing about Dunn: his ground balls have spiked recently and his fly balls have dropped off. This is what a slump looks like:
*To find a position player who broke the 40 percent barrier, you have to get down to about 100 plate appearances. Only two men have done it and lasted more than 100 PAs in a season since 1930, and only one remained in baseball: Dave Nicholson, who spent three of his seven years with the White Sox, during which he struck out 35.4 percent of the time.
Nicholson originally signed for a then-record $120,000 to the Orioles in 1958, almost a million in 2012 dollars, and very allegedly hit a 573-foot home run out of Comiskey Park, which would make it the longest ever hit. Nicholson was so strong that when he once turned off all the clubhouse showers in a fit of pique, it took a plumber to unscrew them. Between his massive signing bonus, massive power, and inability to make contact, Nicholson was basically the proto-Joe Borchard.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune