Back in April of 2009, Don Cooper suggested that Mark Buehrle needed to alter his offseason conditioning program -- which consisted of little-to-zero throwing -- in order to hold up better for the second half. In Cooperspeak, he said Buehrle wasn't "Johnny Condition Guy."
Buehrle wasn't exactly appreciative of the open speculation. From a Chicago Sun-Times story on April 9, 2009:
"They've always said that I needed to do more in the offseason, but I've been doing it for nine years, 10 years, and I've never gotten hurt, and now all of a sudden I've got to change my routine in the offseason?" Buehrle said Wednesday. "It doesn't make sense." [...]
"I'll listen to what they're going to say," Buehrle said. "I'm not going to go against what they say, but I'm not going to play catch every other day for four months, come in and take a chance of getting hurt. I don't think I need to throw that much in the offseason to get ready."
Cooper had his reasons. Historically, Buehrle had a trend of wearing down in the second half, and in recent seasons, his early bouts of stiffness and ineffectiveness in February and March turned injury speculation into Tucson tradition.
But Buehrle was resistant to change what had done him right in the past. Doing nothing did wonders for him. He won 122 games over his first nine seasons without throwing in the winter, and more significantly, he didn't have to change anything to recover from the most atrocious stretch of his professional career.
Over the last three months of the 2006 season, Buehrle was the worst pitcher in baseball. He went 3-9 with a 7.12 ERA over 16 starts, giving up a whopping 135 hits and 24 homers over 92 1/3 innings. Opponents hit .353/.387/.615, which is just about Paul Konerko's current OPS.
Basically, any way you look at it, Buehrle was a wreck. Kenny Williams tried to help him by trading for the bones of Sandy Alomar, giving the ancient catcher four separate tours with the White Sox. Nothing helped, and Buehrle's performance was the primary reason why the 90-win Sox couldn't hang with the Twins and the Tigers down the stretch.
And yet, being the worst pitcher in baseball for half a season didn't rattle Buehrle out of his routine. He only adopted a new throwing program after the 2009 season, when Buehrle went from perfection to setting records to a mediocre finish. He started an arm-strengthening program in January, with bullpen and long-toss sessions.
He showed up to spring training in tip-top shape, with no spring limitations or skipped starts. He felt better at the onset of the seasons than he had in years...
...and then he proceeded to pitch poorly for the first quarter of the season. It ended up working out for him, but he struggled for long enough to allow the chance that he might never break out of his decline.
Adam Dunn is another guy who has enjoyed a successful big-league career with little baseball activity during the winter. White Sox fans became aware of that fact during spring training, when he mentioned that he didn't pick up a bat during the offseason. Just working out worked for him, and what worked for him worked for Ozzie Guillen.
But now it's June 23, Dunn is hitting .175/.314/.323, and those words are coming back to haunt him. Greg Walker says that shouldn't be the case:
"We don't want to change him,'' Walker said. "We don't with players who come over here ... sometimes you have to think out of box and make adjustments, sure, that might be something that has to take place here for him to get going. But we signed Adam Dunn. That's who we're trying to coach. And to be honest with you - and most people would think this is a ludicrous statement -I don't think he's that far away. I think if he gets his body in position to hit he will be Adam Dunn again."
Walker later elaborated on what he perceived to be the source of Dunn's undoing:
"The only thing we're trying to get him to do is get started on time and get his body in position to hit,'' Walker said. "That's been his big miss this year. He's been late and caught back, which puts you too far under in a swing plane. I personally think that's all there's too it.''
This jibes with what the center-field camera captures. He looks like I feel at a batting cage, when it's dimly lit and the feeder for the machine is jammed. When the arm actually fires a fastball at you, it's a shock. His body is guessing, and what he's not swinging under and missing, he's fouling back.
Broken timing mechanisms are a bitch, and when it affects a three-true-outcomes hitter like Dunn, the only outcome is pain. He's The Big Hurt II, for all the wrong reasons.
Because it's so miserable, the tendency is to point the finger at the most anger-satiating answer. This could have been avoided if Dunn just worked harder! He sucks because he's lazy! Case CLOSED!
If that's the case, then it's suddenly harder to explain what's happening to one of Dunn's teammates.
Teammate X, we'll call him, had a helluva finish to his 2010. Did he rest on his laurels? No! He added 15 pounds of muscle over the winter, took batting practice in December to break up scar tissue in his hand, then took it up a notch by working with Greg Walker at Camp Cora in January. With that kind of offseason regimen, Teammate X must be tearing the cover off the ball, right?
I'm sure you figured it out by now -- Teammate X is Gordon Beckham, who is hitting .230/.293/.345 and just returned from a three-game benching.
When Walker talks about Beckham, the problems stem from the same source:
"Mental things can cause bad mechanics and that's what has happened with Gordon,'' Walker said. "When it gets hot and heavy, he tries to do more. His leg kick gets bigger, his hand move gets bigger. His swing gets loopier. He doesn't get fastballs he normally gets to. He's defensive. He has to find that warm, fuzzy feeling where you're in the right zone.''
Beckham and Dunn, at different stages in their careers, with different offseason approaches, have the same problem -- they're tentative, they're starting late, and they can't make up for it. It's mechanical. It's mental. And how often they swung a bat six months ago has no bearing on whether they'll get out of it.
Their plans made sense. Beckham was coming off a disappointing season, and wanted to come back from his hand injury feeling as strong as he did over July and August of 2010. Meanwhile, Dunn is one of the most reliable power hitters in baseball history. Everybody abided by his track record, and it would've been dumb if we didn't.
And that's why I brought up Buehrle at the top. The avid hunter stuck to his guns after his Dunn-like dive back in 2006. He had a strong concept of what worked for him, and that knowledge didn't let him down. He eventually changed, but his numbers didn't tell him to - his bosses and his shoulder did.
Dunn came into Chicago with a Buehrle-like reputation for consistency. If he were to write off this stretch as an aberration and stick to his routine in the offseason, I can't say I'd blame him. The equation "More hitting = More production" makes sense on one level, but when it comes to timing major-league pitching, cage work can only take you so far. Otherwise, Beckham should be miles ahead, and even Dunn should be hitting by now. It's been 12 weeks.
Maybe he'll revamp his offseason approach. If I were him, I'd at least pretend I did. But we shouldn't expect it to make a difference either way, because he would have a better understanding than anybody. Knowledge is power, and when it comes to the current, sadsack version of Dunn, we're all slugging .300.