Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adam Dunn: Mechanics, Age or a Little of Both?

I have somehow managed to avoid discussing Adam Dunn this season mostly because I usually like to talk about either positive things or at least somewhat intriguing negative things. Adam Dunn might come close to the latter but my “hunch” all season was that his issues this year have had mostly to do with a combination of bad luck and old age. I assumed early on that he would probably at least right his production enough to be considered a “productive” DH but at this point it is clear that ship has sailed.

Recently I encountered several intriguing pieces on Adam Dunn. The first, was Bradley Woodrum’s article entitled Adam Dunn Should Hit Better – But Not Much Better, which largely confirmed at least part of my first suspicion, that Dunn has been unlucky. Woodrum uses a predictive model entitled ShHAP which uses career BABIP and the players K, BB and HR rates to make predictions of expected player performance. Those of you who have read previous articles of mine know that I have done very similar analysis of other players. Seeing as how Woodrum’s work would likely completely mirror any work I could do on the subject, it suffices to say that I agree with Woodrum’s conclusion. Dunn has been unlucky to an extent but his drop in production has largely resulted from a dramatically increased K rate, lower BB rate, and lower HR rate on fly balls. Even with a luck adjustment Dunn would not be expected to be a serviceable DH.

Next, in the comments section of that same article I noticed a link to an interesting side by side swing mechanics analysis of Adam Dunn that can be found here, I found this video interesting because there are very subtle but noticeable differences in Adam Dunn’s swing. I agree to an extent with the video, Dunn is starting his hands a bit earlier and he is not getting off his back side with much authority. However, calling these issues a problem of “mechanics” can be deceptive simply because when players age a bit and lose some physical skills, that same player will show swing mechanics issues. The reason for this is because if said player is losing something like bat speed in their swing, they will try to compensate naturally by adjusting their swing in subtle ways. Staying back on the ball, for example, is something that a player with good bat speed can do effectively, but a player who is slower through the zone would be chronically late against better fastballs and therefore does not have the luxury of keeping his hands back. That same player will likely have to “cheat” to get there in a timely fashion. That same player who cheats is now going to face additional problems such as an inability to adjust to offspeed pitches and an inability to adjust the bat trajectory to make good contact overall.

In Adam Dunn’s case, I think the video does a good job of pointing out that Dunn is staring earlier but I disagree that it is his hands that we should focus on. The first thing I noticed from the film was his hips. If you notice, in his prime Adam Dunn not only keeps his hands back, but very clearly rotates his hips in line with his shoulders and hands in a uniform manner. In the second shot, Dunn’s hips are already clearing out before he even plants his heel. By the time his heel is planted, his hips are already halfway (slight exaggeration) through their rotation.

In addition to hip rotation that is not only early but out of line with his shoulders and hands, Dunn also sports an exaggerated leg kick at the beginning of the swing. Furthermore, notice how Dunn’s right arm has more of a locked L-shape coming through the zone for prime Dunn versus a straighter almost “noodle” looking arm in the second video because his hips are out and his shoulders are following early. Finally, Dunn finished in the first video by pushing his weight off his back leg versus bad Dunn who simply collapses on the back leg as he falls inward due to his momentum which the video notes as the second major swing issue.

While all of these swing differences are certainly “mechanical” in nature, they are also indicative of a player who is “cheating” because he is having trouble generating power and bat speed more generally. All of these changes would be expected in that scenario where a player has simply lost physical ability because all of the actions would be made to get the bat through the zone quicker and generate more power through momentum in a manner that is compensatory to a loss in ability. The problem is that these adjustments simply do not work. Dunn almost seems to drag his arms through the zone with his hips and shoulders, something that would be an expected reaction if he simply could not get through the zone quickly with his normal swing. Further, he extended leg kick and his body collapsing and falling off would be an expected way to compensate for a lack of power using the body’s momentum in more extreme fashion.

It is tough to make a distinction between bad mechanics and compensatory mechanics due to bad physical skills. Two factors led me to believe his swing is compensatory in nature and that is first, it is a swing that largely demonstrates compensatory tendencies and two, Dunn is a bigger player who is older and used to be a model of consistency. Adam Dunn is 6’6” and almost 300 lbs and baseball is filled with bigger sluggers who did not age gracefully. There’s just more that needs to be maintained and more that can break down. Baseball fans have seen this kind of development before with players like Mo Vaugh and Richie Sexson among others. The early 30’s are often unkind to bigger bodies. However, as I mentioned, Adam Dunn has been one of the most consistent hitters in the majors over the course of his career with his strikeout rate, walk rate and HR rates never varying by much more than 2%. This makes it all the more difficult for me to believe that suddenly in his early 30’s, a prime time for bigger players like him to lose ability, that he simply developed mechanical “glitches” in his swing. Finally, the White Sox are an intelligent franchise. It is a bit hard for me to believe that these issues with his swing have not already been spotted and worked on by the coaching staff. If correcting these problems were really so easy for Adam Dunn, one would think he would have already done it.

Having said all that, simply because I mentioned him in the same breath as Richie Sexson and Mo Vaughn does not mean that I think Dunn cannot salvage his ability as a major league player. Old age and body breakdown are tough issues but they are not insurmountable. I do believe Dunn is at the point in his career where it will simply take more offseason work and effort on his part to be an effective player. That means better workout, diet and general lifestyle choices outside the ballpark than ever before. It is a tough adjustment that not only requires dedication but some good luck on the injury front as well. However, I would caution anybody on using this season and these tendencies of Adam Dunn to completely write him off at this point. Maybe this kind of season is just the motivation he needs to work harder than he ever has before and maybe that hard work will pay off in a big way.

Frankly, I am still inclined to give Dunn some benefit of the doubt before next season before I make any conclusions on his ability to come back from these problems. It takes dedication for a professional athlete to be as consistent as he has been in the past and his own pride will certainly be a motivating factor. Certainly he needs his body to agree with his desire as well, but I believe the desire is there.

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