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Saying goodbye to Adam Dunn

When the Washington Nationals signed Adam Dunn to a 2 year, $20 million deal before the 2009 season, he became their first real big-ticket free agent. After the Oakland A's lost a 9-8 heartbreaker to the Kansas City Royals in Tuesday's AL Wildcard game, Dunn indicated that he intends to retire.

Adam Dunn was the first real big ticket free agent to come to Washington.  After Tuesday's loss in the AL Wildcard game, The Big Donkey indicated that he intends to retire.
Adam Dunn was the first real big ticket free agent to come to Washington. After Tuesday's loss in the AL Wildcard game, The Big Donkey indicated that he intends to retire.
Greg Fiume

Former National Adam Dunn played his last game this past Sunday with the Oakland A's.  While he was available off the bench in Tuesday's AL Wildcard game, he never got a plate appearance.  The A's lost 9-8, ending their season and, presumably, Dunn's career.  Dunn, who had told the media earlier this season that he planned to retire at year's end, reiterated after the game that this was probably the end of his playing career.  On Wednesday, he tweeted out to his fans....

Dunn will end his fourteen year career with a .237 batting average, a .364 on-base percentage, a .490 slugging percentage, and 462 home runs.  Dunn was the definition of a Three True Outcomes player.  He walked in 15.8% of his plate appearances, struck out in 28.6% of them, and homered 5.5% of the time.  He'll finish with 8,328 career plate appearances in 2,001 games... none of which came in the postseason.

Early Career

A two sport athlete in high school, Dunn was actually recruited by the University of Texas to play Quarterback.  He chose baseball, signing with the Cincinnati Reds after being selected in the second round in the 1998 draft.  Coming up through the Reds system, Dunn was more than just a power hitter.  He actually hit .334/.444/.671 between AA and AAA in his final minor league season and was even a threat on the basepaths early in his career.  Dunn was actually successful on 57 of his 76 stolen base attempts in his first eight MLB seasons between the Reds and Diamondbacks.

Upon reaching the majors in 2001, Dunn would go on to give the Reds more than seven and a half terrific seasons, batting .247/.380/.520 with 270 home runs.  During his tenure in Cincinnati, the Reds failed to reach the postseason... in fact, they finished no better than 80-82 while Dunn was on the squad.  He was traded in a waiver deal to the Arizona Diamondbacks in August of 2008.  After hitting 32 homers with the Reds that season, Dunn would end up adding 8 more for the Diamondbacks to finish with exactly 40 home runs (for the fourth straight season) and 100 RBI.  Unfortunately, Arizona would fall two games shy of reaching the playoffs that season as well.  Dunn was still waiting for his first postseason opportunity.

Dunn's signing with the Nats in 2009

From 2005 through 2008, the Washington Nationals operated in a similar method to their predecessors in Montreal.  Their biggest free agent acquisitions in the early years were Cristian Guzman, Vinny Castilla, Dmitri Young, and Paul Lo Duca.  All of these players were guys who GM Jim Bowden was able to get on the cheap for one reason or another.  Castilla, Young, and Lo Duca were nearing the end of their careers.  Guzman was an average defensive shortstop who offered little power and speed with an allergy to walks.  Guzman's 4 year, $16.8 million deal was the largest free agent contract that the Nationals had ever signed.

During the 2008-09 offseason, the Nationals started to try and flex their financial muscle a bit more.  They were reported to be involved in talks with the most sought-after free agent position player on the market (Mark Teixeira) right up until the moment when Teixeira signed an 8 year, $180 million contract with the New York Yankees.  A month and a half later, the Nationals signed Dunn to a 2 year, $20 million contract that became the richest free agent deal in franchise history and started to change the baseball culture in D.C.

At the time of the deal, the Nationals lacked a second middle of the order bat to complement franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman.  The Nats had hit just 117 home runs and scored just 641 runs in 2008.  Both figures ranked 28th in the majors.  No Nationals player had hit more than 14 homers (Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge) or driven in more than 61 runs (Milledge) in 2008 as the Nats finished an MLB worst 59-102.  For a team that was certainly in need of a power presence in the middle of the order, Dunn seemed an ideal fit.

Dunn certainly did have some warts....

  • He was a poor defender, predominantly as a left fielder, when the Nationals signed him in 2009.  In both Cincinnati and Arizona, Dunn had spent some time at first base (where he would eventually end up with the Nationals).  However, most of his big league career had been spent in a corner outfield spot.  No matter where he ended up playing, Dunn was always a poor defender.  He finished his career with -66 Defensive Runs Saved at first base and -103 Defensive Runs Saved in the outfield.
  • While the Three True Outcomes thing has its virtues (he hit a lot of home runs... he drew a lot of walks), it also meant that he struck out an awful lot.  Dunn led the league in strikeouts four times in his career.  Three of these came before the Nationals signed him.  While he did not lead the NL in strikeouts in either of his seasons with the Nats, he did strike out 199 times in 2010... the second highest single season total of his career.
    The Nationals would go on to have the worst record in baseball (59-103) for the second straight season in 2009, but that certainly can't be blamed on Adam Dunn.  Dunn's first season with the Nats saw him finish with a career best .267 batting average.  His .398 OBP was the second highest total of his career (.400 in his first full season in 2002).  While he fell short of matching that lofty 40 homer plateau, Dunn would finish with a team-leading 38 HR and finished just one RBI shy of Ryan Zimmerman for the team lead with 105.

    In Dunn's second and final season with the Nats, he once again showed that he could crush baseballs with the best of them.  Dunn hit 38 HR for the second straight season to lead the team.  His 103 RBI also led the Nationals.  The batting average gains that he saw in 2009 didn't disappear, as he would go on to bat .260/.356/.536 and finish second behind Zimmerman with an .892 OPS.  The 2010 Nationals saw a ten win improvement as they finished 69-93.

    Effect on other players

    While we could probably spend some time debating whether or not Dunn had a negative effect on the pitching staff because of his glove, let's focus more on the positive impact that he had on franchise player Ryan Zimmerman.  With Dunn protecting him in the order, Zimmerman had arguably the best two seasons of his career (to this point).  Across the board, Zimmerman's triple slash lines (.292/.364/.525 in 2009... .307/.388/.510 in 2010) in the seasons when Dunn was with the Nationals are the highest of his career.  Dunn's patient approach and knowledge of the strike zone certainly appears to have rubbed off some on the Face of the Franchise.

    Prior to 2009, Zimmerman had an 8.0% walk rate in 1,932 career plate appearances.  In the two years that Dunn was in D.C., Zimmerman's walk rate was 10.9%.  In the years since, Zimmerman's walk rate has declined a bit, but it's remained fairly steady at 9.2%.  While walks aren't the only way for a batter to get on base, Zimmerman's overall production in those two seasons were the best of his career.  Being more selective certainly played a part in that.

    Effect on the fans

    Dunn's light tower power made him an instant favorite in Washington, often drawing comparisons to Frank Howard.  Dunn was also a big, goofy, quirky guy in the clubhouse, which the D.C. faithful ate up.  By all accounts, Dunn loved playing for the Nats and would have liked to re-sign with the Nationals had they been willing to give him a fourth year on an extension.  In the weeks surrounding the trade deadline in 2010, when Dunn's name was often tied to (among others) the Chicago White Sox, Dunn was adamant about his desire to stay.  He reiterated this as he hit free agency.

    Alas, once Dunn hit free agency, the writing seemed to be on the wall.  While the Nationals had reportedly made efforts to extend his contract during the 2010 season, they never seemed serious about offering him the four year deal that he wanted.  The White Sox offered it to him instead.  While I'll always look back fondly on Dunn's time with the Nationals, this was probably the best move for the Nats.

    The White Sox years

    Dunn's first season in Chicago after he left the Nationals, he underwent an emergency appendectomy just a week into the season.  He never really got going that year, batting .159/.292/.277 with just 11 HR.  The final three years of his contract were better, but he was never really the same.  Dunn would go on to bat just .201/.321/.410 with 106 HR in his four seasons with the White Sox before heading to Oakland in a waiver trade this August.

    Which brings us back to Tuesday....

    After 2,001 career games and 8,328 career plate appearances, Dunn finally found himself on a playoff roster on Tuesday night.  Dunn's friend and former Nationals teammate Josh Willingham also started the game on the bench, but led off the 9th inning with a bloop hit that led to the Royals scoring the game-tying run.  In what ended up being a twelve inning game, A's manager Bob Melvin found a spot to use Nate Freiman.... he found a spot to use Alberto Callaspo (!!!)... he found a spot to use Nick Punto (!!!!!!!!!!!!).  He did not find a spot to use Adam Dunn.  In the first ever time that Dunn's team reached the playoffs, he did not see any action.

    Congrats on a great career Adam.  I'll always remember your time in D.C. fondly.  Good luck with #phase2.