Adam Dunn, the new slugger in town, will drive Sox fans nuts this season. They’ll be cheering him one moment and cussing him the next—and the next, and the next, and the next. Often this summer—probably about 40 times—Dunn will send the ball soaring to the bleachers, and he’ll trot triumphantly around the bases. Far more often, he’ll stride from the on-deck circle to the plate, and a few pitches later, after the umpire’s right hand punches the air, he’ll retreat to the dugout. He’ll put away his unblemished bat—or, because he’s the designated hitter, he may take it with him to the batting cage beneath the stands for a few more swings and misses. All that trotting and walking is a lot to ask of an athlete, which is why Dunn will get $14 million a year the next four years.
There’s nothing as thrilling as a home run or as maddening as a strikeout for fans whose team is at the plate. Dunn specializes in both.
His arrival has endangered the White Sox season record for whiffs—175, set by Dave Nicholson in 1963. In eight full seasons in the National League, Dunn, who’s 31, averaged 179 strikeouts. He’s already surpassed Nicholson’s ignominious Sox mark on four occasions. With the Washington Nationals last year, Dunn came up empty 199 times.
The Sox signed Dunn in December, a week before re-signing their captain, Paul Konerko. Konerko is a bona fide slugger as well, homering once every 18 official at bats in his career. Dunn is even more potent: he goes deep once every 14 at bats. But Dunn fans twice as often as Konerko.
In street clothes around town, Dunn could be mistaken for a Bears defensive end. He’s six-foot-six, 285 pounds. His nickname is “the Big Donkey,” but Sox fans can do better than that. “The Big Breeze” seems more apt. Or “Special K.”
“K,” for all you non-baseball fans scoring at home, is the scorecard symbol for a strikeout. “SO” would be simpler, but baseball is hardly a simple game.
Dunn is a different kind of player, to put it mildly, from a certain Sox hero of years ago.
In 1959 the White Sox were led to the American League pennant by their star second baseman, Nellie Fox. In street clothes around town, Fox could have been mistaken for the Bears water boy. He was five-foot-ten, 160 pounds. On opening day in Detroit in 1959, he collected five hits in seven at bats. His final hit that day, a drive to right field in the 14th inning, barely cleared the fence and won the game for the Sox. It was Fox’s first home run since September 1957, and he hit just one more in 1959. Yet with only those two homers that season, he won the AL’s most valuable player award.
Fox compensated for his lack of power by excelling at everything else. He won the gold glove at second base in ’59, played in every game, and hit .306. He walked 71 times and was hit by pitches another seven; all told, his on-base percentage was a lofty
.389 .380. He had nine sacrifice bunts.
Most stunning was his microscopic strikeout total, in ’59 and throughout his career. Choking up on a thick-handled bat and swinging for the outfield grass instead of the fences, Fox almost always got good wood on the ball. “Nellie was the toughest out for me,” the great Yankee Whitey Ford once said. “In 12 years I struck him out once, and I think the umpire blew the call.” In 624 official at bats in ’59, Fox whiffed 13 times—once every 48 official trips to the plate. Dunn fans once every three official at bats. He gets good air on the ball.
Striking out isn’t the worst outcome for a batter nor the most frustrating for his fans, as trying as it is. It’s not as bad as the double play, which has not one but three bad results—two outs and the loss of a runner. In an instant, a promising inning becomes time to seek a beer.
It may be modest consolation, but whiffers like Dunn tend not to hit into many twin-killings. Only once in his career has Dunn grounded into more than ten DPs in a season. Konerko, on the other hand, has done that ten times; five times he’s grounded into more than 20 DPs. Dunn has the advantage of being a lefty: he starts out closer to first and his follow-through leans him that way, whereas the follow-through of the right-handed Konerko pulls him in the wrong direction. But the main reason Konerko grounds into so many more DPs than Dunn is that he’s a more consistent hitter. His career average is 29 points higher (.280 vs. .251). He puts the ball in play. Dunn tends to put the ball out of play when he connects at all.
With the sluggish Dunn batting ahead of the ponderous Konerko, the Sox at times will be in jeopardy of a frustration even greater than a twin-killing. When Gordon Beckham is on second and Dunn is on first, and Konerko grounds to short, Beckham will have to go hard into third to break up the triple play.
Dunn is a dead-pull hitter, and so when he’s batting, the infielders will swing severely to the right, as they did in the Jim Thome era. The key defensive shift, however, will happen behind the plate when there are two strikes on Dunn, the catcher sliding stealthily from one corner to the other.
Almost exactly half the time Dunn bats, the only fielders necessary are the pitcher and catcher; everyone else could be grabbing a doughnut or taking a leak in the clubhouse. In 648 plate appearances last season, Dunn had 38 homers and 77 walks, and he was hit by a pitch nine times. Add in his 199 Ks, and he hit a playable ball just 51 percent of the time.
Worse than going down swinging, Dunn often strikes out with the bat on his shoulder. He can be indecisive at the plate, looking at times like he’s bent over a produce counter, unable to choose between the Granny Smiths and the Pink Ladies.
Time will tell whether Dunn powers the Sox to a pennant or serves as a breezeway in the middle of their lineup. The Sox faithful likely will back him warmly at first. Who, after all, could be more worthy of a “fan” club?
And when his repeated whiffs start wearing on Sox rooters, there’s something Dunn himself can do to stem a rebellion.
Alex Snelius, who won $18.5 million, after taxes, in the Illinois Lottery 11 years ago, has been donating $100 to White Sox Charities every time a Sox player homers—Hawk Harrelson always reminds his TV audience of the gift not long after the hero reaches the dugout. It’s a fine gesture, but superfluous. Isn’t a home run rewarding enough in itself? If the blast is hit at the Cell, it’s also celebrated with fireworks. Does the hoopla add to the moment, or detract from the achievement?
But after a strikeout—that’s when fans can use some diversion and comfort.
What if charitable gifts were tied to Dunn’s strikeouts instead of his homers? And who better to donate than Dunn himself? A thousand bucks a whiff seems right—a K for a K. Sox fans would be more forgiving if they saw a silver lining in his strikeouts—if they knew they were generating money for the Adam Dunn I Grabbed Some Bench for the Greater Good Foundation. On his retreat to the dugout after yet another K, fans would cheer his generosity instead of booing his futility. And his contributions would be tax-deductible, helping him make ends meet.
Can’t you hear Harrelson? “Adam caught looking for the third time today, dadgummit.” A vexed sigh, a pause—then a shift in tone: “But, another thousand dollars for the good sisters at Marillac House. . .” v