You can frame the relevant statistics in ways to suggest that Adam Dunn's 2011 was not the worst season any very good player has ever had. But it's difficult to do so convincingly. Dunn's .159 batting average was not officially baseball's lowest since 1909, but only because his manager began mercy-benching him late in the season to keep him from qualifying. Since 1901, 10 players have had a single-season WAR that was worse than Dunn's -3.0. Of course, that still leaves 82,072 player seasons that were better than the White Sox DH's 2011 performance, according to baseball-reference.com.
"Yes, we were," says Chicago G.M. Kenny Williams when asked if his club was stunned that the 31-year-old slugger turned in a historically miserable season: 11 home runs, 42 RBIs and a .569 OPS in 496 plate appearances. "But I was equally as stunned that people were writing him off. Nobody's a robot. Guys have bad seasons."
And sometimes, they rebound from them. After 48 games Dunn—who is in the second season of a four-year, $56 million deal—had surpassed his 2011 home run total, with 15 (second most in the majors), and nearly matched his RBI figure, with 35. He was leading the AL with 39 walks and was fifth with a .953 OPS. Dunn has looked like an extreme version of his pre-2011 self. The Big Donkey has always been a so-called three-true-outcome hitter, meaning an unusually large portion of his plate appearances result in a home run, a walk or a strikeout. Among players with more than 6,000 appearances, no one has had a higher percentage lead to one of those outcomes: 49.8%.
Dunn's three-outcome percentage was 53.0% in 2011—but the balance of those outcomes was way off. While his walk rate was in line with his usual standard (he drew a base on balls once every 6.6 plate appearances), he made less contact than ever before, striking out once every 2.8 trips to the plate (compared with once every 3.7 before 2011). When he did make contact, the ball didn't go anywhere: After averaging one home run per every 17.1 plate appearances through 2010, he hit one every 45.1 last year.
This season, the DH has out-Dunn himself. Through Sunday he was producing one of the three outcomes in 62.0% of his plate appearances—which would be an alltime record (chart)—but doing so in more balanced fashion. He has been striking out about as frequently as in 2011 (one every 2.8 PAs) but walking (every 5.3 trips) and going deep (every 13.9) more often.
Dunn's 2011 is looking more and more like an inexplicable aberration. Before then he had been one of the game's most consistent producers: Each season from 2004 to '10 he hit between 38 and 46 homers. No one is more perplexed about 2011 than Dunn himself. "I can't put a finger on anything that happened," he says. "Seemed like every day I'd come to the field and I'd be like, This is the day it's going to turn around."
Perhaps he erred in rushing back from an April appendectomy (he missed just six games), but Dunn, a laconic Texan, is not the type to make excuses. "There've been plenty of other people who had that same surgery that turned out fine," he says. "You just start struggling so bad that you start trying to do stuff you're not accustomed to doing."
That tortured tinkering with his mechanics—changing his hand position, starting his swing earlier—might have only deepened his struggles. He can't explain how, but Dunn has fixed whatever ailed him: He is on pace for career highs in home runs (51) and walks (132). "I feel that it's just a normal year again," he says.
Normal, for Dunn, also means a lot of strikeouts: He's on track for a record 253. That won't matter if his OPS remains in the top 15. It appears Dunn's 2011 was not only the worst season ever for a very good player. It was also the most anomalous.
MOST FREQUENT THREE-TRUE-OUTCOME
CAREER (MIN. 6,000 PLATE APPEARANCES)
YEAR 1, A.D. A season after he put up the 82,073rd-best WAR in history, Dunn has risen from the dead and is on pace to break the 50-homer barrier for the first time.