When Adam Dunn came to the plate, he would pretty much always do one of three things: He would strike out; he would walk; or he would hit a baseball some 400-odd feet. With his propensity to produce these so-called “three true outcomes” — the three types of plays in which fielders play no role — the former Cincinnati Reds outfielder known as “Big Donkey” was the poster boy for a new generation of batters who swung for the fences and didn’t mind a strikeout or two (hundred).
But he didn’t aim to be at the forefront of one of baseball’s most pervasive 21st-century trends.
“You would think I would have gotten used to striking out and sucking. It devastated me every single time,” Dunn told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in July. “At the time, I didn’t really pay attention to [strikeouts, walks and home runs]. I never looked at myself as that low-batting-average guy, but I kind of morphed into it. I always thought one day I would wake up and the old Adam would be back and we would roll.”
Whether he meant to be or not, Dunn was always a harbinger of where the modern ballplayer was headed. And for better or worse, today’s game is filled with more Adam Dunns than ever before.
In 2002, Dunn’s first full season in the big leagues, only three other players — Derrek Lee, Mike Cameron and Pat Burrell — joined Dunn with at least 25 home runs, 70 walks and 150 strikeouts. (Dunn went on to meet those thresholds nine more times, easily giving him the all-time mark for that kind of season.) But this season, an MLB-record 14 hitters are on track to meet those criteria. The kind of player who was once an oddity now has a place in nearly half of the league’s lineups.
Dunn wasn’t the first hitter to specialize in excluding fielders from the action. Washington Senators outfielder Don Lock became the 25/70/150 club’s first member in 1963, and the Giants’ Bobby Bonds hit those marks in back-to-back seasons in 1969 and 1970. From then on, there was typically at least one Dunn-style slugger in the majors, and a variety of guys earned the label, including Greg Luzinski, Dave Kingman and Rob Deer.1 But their approach was also seen as a curiosity at best — and a liability at worst. “[Kingman] is regarded by many as one of baseball’s bad jokes, a flashy player but ultimately a loser,” Jonah Keri wrote in “Baseball Between The Numbers.”
By the time Dunn hit the scene, however, the sabermetric movement was gaining popularity, and strikeouts were becoming more acceptable, as long as players offset them with power and patience. Likewise, teams were beginning to seek out hard-throwing pitchers with high K rates, creating a perfect storm of aligned incentives that helped lead to today’s three true outcomes-heavy game. So, from Dunn and a handful of others at the dawn of the 2000s, the number of hitters who take his approach — we’ll call guys who hit those 25/70/150 benchmarks members of the Adam Dunn Club — has only grown in recent seasons:
Some of these players count among baseball’s very best. Despite his recent slump,2 New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge — whose 6-foot-7 frame brings to mind a right-handed version of the 6-foot-6 Dunn at the plate — ranks fourth this season in wins above replacement (WAR)3 and is still in the American League MVP conversation. Likewise, Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt and Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton are probably the front-runners for MVP honors in the National League — each projects to finish with around 150 whiffs, a minor footnote in their otherwise sparkling stat lines.
Simply striking out a ton doesn’t automatically disqualify a player from being considered great anymore, as opposed to in the olden days when there was a stigma attached to strikeout kings. But some hitters can still overdo it; in fact, there are some legitimately bad ballplayers in the Adam Dunn Club these days. A year after Milwaukee’s Chris Carter smashed 41 home runs while playing what was generally agreed to be mediocre baseball,4 five of the 14 players tracking for membership in the club are also on pace for fewer than 2.0 WAR, which is generally the benchmark for a worthwhile major-league starter. One — Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays — is headed for a 26-homer, 91-walk season that will also likely be below the replacement level, quite possibly earning him the worst Dunn Club season in history. (And this is to say nothing of the further proliferation of Dunn-“lite” players such as Milwaukee’s Keon Broxton, for example, who check off the home run and strikeout boxes but don’t even draw enough walks to join the club.)
With baseballs flying out of big-league parks at an unprecedented rate — and batters getting rung up at a similarly historic clip — it’s a safe bet that Dunn’s brand of baseball is here to stay, at least for the time being. That means we’ll get to see more of both the highs and lows that come when a player swings as hard as he can and hopes for the best.
As for Dunn’s view of the generation of hitters he helped spawn? In his interview with Crasnick, even Dunn himself was skeptical of an entire lineup of batters who hit like he did.
“Everything evolves, and this is the era we’re in,” he said. “People see if you hit homers and drive in a lot of runs, you’re going to get where you need to get financially. Does it help a team if you have a couple of those guys? Yeah. But if you have nine of them, it’s going to be tough.”