It’s hard to even fathom how lost Adam Dunn was at the plate in 2011. Fresh off the signing of a lavish new four-year, $56 million contract, Dunn’s first foray into the American League was one he’d like to forget.
And with a pair of late home runs on Monday night, Dunn has all but wrapped up Comeback Player of the Year honors. What’s more, Dunn’s White Sox managed to stay one game ahead of the Tigers in the AL Central with only nine games remaining.
It used to be so commonplace that it was almost easy to overlook. Each and every year, it seemed, the Big Donkey would be among the National League leader in homers, and each and every year, he would do so with at least 40 bombs on the season. Maybe it seemed that way because it actually was. In fact, Dunn posted at least 40 homers in a season every year from 2004-2008 with the last four of those five years showing exactly 40 home runs. It was eerie how it happened.
The king of the three true outcomes, Dunn has reached the 2,000 career strikeout club faster than any player in big league history, but he’s also clubbed more than 400 home runs in his 12 seasons and has walked nearly 100 times per year, on average. With the White Sox facing the hapless Cleveland Indians on Monday night, Dunn fanned in each of his first two trips to the plate. Down by two runs in the sixth, and with the Tigers victory having just been posted on the scoreboard, Dunn delivered a solo homer to centerfield to cut the Tribe lead to a single run. It was his 40th big fly of the year; a feat that only one year ago must have seemed near impossible.
The only reason that Adam Dunn didn’t set a record for offensive futility in 2011 was that his manager at the time, Ozzie Guillen, mercifully held him out of most of the final month of the season. Dunn wound up six plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting race, which is the only reason he didn’t officially become the second-ever player to strikeout more than his batting average. Not that it saves him much face, however, as a .159 average coupled with 177 strikeouts is still pretty memorable. But it wasn’t just the lack of contact that was so troubling last year, it was the lack of power as well. The one thing he could always do was hit baseballs as far and as often as most anybody in the league, but in 2011, while playing in a hitter’s haven, Dunn managed only 11 long balls. He added just 16 doubles to his cause and wound up with a slugging percentage of .277; 15 points lower than his on-base percentage. That’s something you only ever see with the lightest of hitters; never a behemoth like Dunn.
The Indians had things lined up just how they wanted them on Monday. Holding a one-run edge, the Tribe turned the ball over to Joe Smith, who struck out the side in the seventh. The formula that has worked all year, even when everything else has seemed to fail the Indians, has been to get a lead and hand the ball to the bullpen in the last two innings. Vinnie Pestano, one of the best and most dominant set-up men in baseball, wasn’t especially sharp on this night, and he wound up having to face Dunn with two runners on base and two outs in the eighth. Pestano got ahead no balls and two strikes, with Dunn swinging wildly at the first two offerings from the Cleveland right hander. But the 0-2 was supposed to be in to the lefty-swinging slugger and instead it drifted over the middle of the plate and sat there thigh-high. Never in Pestano’s big league career has he thrown a pitch that caught more of the plate.
And unlike what had happened so many time in 2011, Dunn didn’t miss Pestano’s mistake and crushed his second homer of the game deep into the Chicago night.
There is an awful lot of talk about who might be the AL MVP this year and Dunn’s name is nowhere near the conversation. If you like WAR, Dunn is still at just 1.9 according to fangraphs; poor defensive play and slow baserunning are penalized heavily by that stat and Dunn is neither fleet of foot nor nimble with the glove. His average is still a mere .210 on the year; a full 30 points below his career mark. But the White Sox has ridden Dunn’s prodigious power, along with career-years by a few others, to an improbable run to the top of the Central division standings.
And for a guy who spent a season in his own personal baseball Hell, Dunn has to be loving every second of the pennant race. The White Sox wouldn’t be where they are without him.