Why does the shift kill Adam Dunn now?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Defenses have always played him to pull, but an increase in strikeouts and a drop in doubles point to bigger issues.

Adam Dunn's 2011 season wasn't just awful ... it was a compromised kind of awful. He never fully recovered from the appendectomy, which contributed to mechanical problems, which contributed to mental problems, and it all unraveled and spiraled into a historical abyss. After three or four months, you couldn't compare it to anything he did before. There's nothing worse than a failure you can't learn from, unless you count letting Ozzie Guillen go.

(Speaking of Guillen, he was on ESPN's First Take on Tuesday, which is perfect. Anyway, he said he missed being in the game, and hitting ground balls during spring training ... although "having Joey Cora hit ground balls" would be more accurate.)

Back to Dunn, his return to diminished normalcy in 2012 provides a better opportunity to compare him to the Washington version of Dunn that Kenny Williams thought he acquired. But when looking at Dunn's 2010 splits versus his 2012 numbers, he still doesn't really resemble his old self, even when healthy. This isn't a secret of course -- there's a reason why he's talking about being more aggressive earlier in the count and making other tweaks.

Here's what he did for the Nationals in 2010:

Split PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
April/March 97 18 5 1 4 9 16 25 .225 .361 .463 .823 .275
May 114 31 10 1 6 18 12 30 .313 .395 .616 1.011 .391
June 112 28 8 0 7 20 8 35 .275 .330 .559 .889 .344
July 103 25 5 0 7 17 11 37 .284 .379 .580 .958 .400
August 120 23 5 0 9 24 17 39 .228 .342 .545 .886 .259
Sept/Oct 102 20 3 0 5 15 13 33 .227 .333 .432 .765 .300

And here's what he did for the White Sox in 2012:

Split PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
April/March 95 18 7 0 5 16 16 34 .231 .368 .513 .881 .333
May 127 23 3 0 11 21 26 48 .230 .386 .590 .976 .286
June 117 17 0 0 8 21 22 43 .181 .333 .436 .770 .205
July 103 19 3 0 7 15 13 27 .211 .311 .478 .788 .214
August 121 18 2 0 7 15 17 38 .176 .289 .402 .691 .186
Sept/Oct 86 15 4 0 3 8 11 32 .200 .302 .373 .676 .300

Even though they're still three-true-outcome-oriented, there's still really no contest between the two, at least outside of the home run column. The increase in strikeouts plays a big part, as it drags down the batting average, and that factors into the decreases in OBP and slugging percentage.

But there are two other outlier columns that are much more difficult to explain. The first is the massive drop in BABIP, which plummeted from .329 in 2010 to .254 in 2012.

The shift is the popular culprit. While the acronym hasn't entered the Sox media lexicon, the concept of BABIP has entered the Dunn narrative. Hawk Harrelson said Dunn lost 20 to 25 hits into the shift numerous times during broadcasts, and earlier this month, Scott Merkin talked to Dunn about defensive alignments and their effect on his batting average.

But that shouldn't explain that much of it, because Dunn has been hitting shifts for more than half his career. The earliest thorough reference I can find in the archives is this Dunn quote from a Hal McCoy story in the Dayton Daily News from May 19, 2006:

"You think about bunting," he said, "then you think, 'Naw, I'm not giving into that thing (the shift ).' Now, I'm just used to it. But it is frustrating when you hit a ball up the middle that should be a base hit or you hit a ball hard between first and second and a guy in the outfield throws you out."

It certainly followed him to Washington. Here's a video of Dunn swatting a double into the right field corner at Camden Yards on June 25, 2010, over three infielders.

I don't think any special blame can be placed on the shift, because it's been a constant, not a variable (except when playing the Twins, thank goodness). Opponents stacked the right side against Dunn during his Washington days, and he still posted a .326 BABIP over two years. The dilemma isn't the fact that he's hitting into a shift -- it's that he's not nearly as good at hitting through it anymore.

But that video highlights the other discrepancy: What happened to his doubles? Dunn averaged 30 a year from 2004 to 2010; in 2012, he couldn't even reach 20. This became an even bigger problem over his last four months, when he hit a whopping total of nine.

Looking at his spray chart and video, it seems like Dunn is missing doubles for a couple reasons. Punching dates into TexasLeaguers.com's database, he hasn't been able to whip the ball down the right field line in the air as often as he used to, and there's an untrampled expanse in the left-center power alley last year, too:

Dunnspray_medium

What does this mean? Well. one theory is that Dunn was able to regain some of the bat speed he lost from the appendectomy-related core problems in 2011, but not all of it. And as the season wore on, he began to more closely resemble those slower-bat lefties who hit grounders to the right side, and flies to the left. That doesn't help the BABIP when the grounders are hit to three infielders, and the flies are lofty and catchable.

Here's what his BABIP nadir looked like in spray chart form in August:

Dunnbabipaugust_medium

Here's where it would be really handy to have Hit f/x publicly available, because we might have a more conclusive idea about the strength of his contact on non-homer hits. As it stands, I'm risking talking out my butt a little, but it seems like the Sox should have an auxiliary plan should his first two months resemble his last four, starting with dropping him in the lineup and planning for worse. When you consider his age (33), the symptoms of his decline and the patterns behind them, it certainly seems like bat speed is the root issue. His swiftest swing might have been taken out of the equation with his appendix, and for a TTO guy like Dunn, his bat speed can't afford to be vestigial.

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