Adam Dunn: Undervalued by Teams/Overvalued by Stat-Savvy fans

Adam Dunn is the bargain no team should ignore.

HOWARD MEGDAL: When I saw this piece in The Washington Post (okay, saw it in MLBTradeRumors.com citing The Washington Post), I understood that the phrase “falling out of my chair” was not much of an exaggeration. Adam Dunn, available for a one-year, $5-6 million contract? The Adam Dunn?

I don’t care what shape the economy is in. Any team that has the chance to add Adam Dunn for close to this price and doesn’t is clinically insane.

There’s a constant focus on the things Dunn doesn’t do well. He doesn’t field well–neither does Raul Ibanez, who signed a three-year, $30 million deal, is much older, and doesn’t hit nearly as well as Dunn. He doesn’t hit for a high average-which would be a big problem if he didn’t walk much either. But he’s walked more than 100 times six times in his career, and led the National League in free passes in 2008.

Let’s put that in perspective. Rickey Henderson had just seven 100-walk seasons in his career- and that was in 25 seasons. Dunn has put up six such years-and he’s only played eight years. The only two he’s missed so far? His rookie year, at age 21, and 2003, when injuries limited him to 38l at-bats- and 74 walks. Over a full season, he was on pace to break 100 yet again.

And if all Adam Dunn did was walk, he’d be valuable to a team. Maybe not Raul Ibanez-valuable, for instance, but valuable.

But here’s the thing- Adam Dunn also hits a TON of home runs.

Dunn has hit 40 home runs or more each of the past five seasons. Here’s the list of players who have more 40 home run seasons in their careers: Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Willie Mays, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez. That’s the end of the list. Those are either inner-circle Hall of Famers, or casualties of the steroids era (perhaps both?).

So the idea that Adam Dunn remains unsigned, and would be available for even twice what The Washington Post says he would settle for is immensely disturbing to me, particularly when my favorite team has a platoon scheduled of Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy in left field, and a spot at first base opening up when Carlos Delgado’s contract expires in 2010. It isn’t that I think Tatis/Murphy won’t be fine. It’s that Adam Dunn would be so much better.

But whatever team you root for, it should bother you that Adam Dunn, home run and walk machine, isn’t already on it.

Adam Dunn is so underrated by traditional fans that sabermetric-types overrate him.

KONSTANTIN MEDVEDOVSKY:

Adam Dunn suffers from a curious ailment – namely that he is both underrated by many traditional baseball fans, but simultaneously overrated by many sabermetric fans of the game. Traditional fans often find themselves disgusted with Dunn’s penchant for strikeouts (Dunn set the record for strikeouts in a season in 2004, and holds two of the top six seasons overall). Those strikeouts have led Dunn to a meager .247 in his seven full seasons in the majors, never topping .266, and going so low as .215. At the same time, because the Reds were never a top OBP team, Dunn has never had the kind of 130+ RBI season that Ryan Howard is able to. The result is a poor batting average, and seemingly insufficient pop to really be worth it.

Sabermetric fans, generally ignoring stats like RBI, and being forgiving of poor batting averages if backed up with enough walks, meanwhile concluded Dunn was an excellent hitter. And indeed, he is. So why is he overrated by such fans? Because there is a tendency to underestimate defense by many statistically inclined fans of the game. The reasons for this are numerous, but they largely stem from the reality that our ability to evaluate defense is weaker than our ability to evaluate offense. Dunn also does not play a premium defensive position, which further seems to marginalize the value of defensive play. Nobody really doubts that Dunn’s defense is poor, but there is a tendency to conclude something along the lines of “Sure he’s a lousy defender, but he’s such a dominant hitter (strikeouts don’t matter!), that it’s all worth it.” Exactly the same reasoning used to give Ryan Howard an MVP award.

The problem is twofold. First, while Dunn is indeed an excellent hitter, he is not Ryan Howard. While they are similar types of players (lots of strikeouts, walks and homeruns), Howard’s batting average and power has been superior to Dunn’s. While Howard does not walk quite as often as Dunn, his batting average over his career is .279, not .247, so their OBPs have ended up nearly identical. Between that, and the fact that Howard has averaged north of 50 HRs a year since becoming a regular, while Dunn has only averaged north of 40, and you get a significantly weaker hitter. The difference between them is on the order of 15-20 runs per year because of these differences. Then there is the defensive issue. Howard and Dunn are both generally considered to be poor defensive players. However, more advanced statistical methods, like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), tell a slightly different story. It’s not that Howard is a defensive wiz, but rather than Dunn is truly atrocious defensively. Available at www.fangraphs.com, UZR suggests that Dunn is approximately 10-15 runs worse than Howard per year with the glove.

When you add up these two issues, you find that Dunn is somewhere in the range of 25-35 runs worse than Howard per year. No problem it seems – Howard is an MVP, and almost a two-time MVP. Being worse than him is no big shakes. The issue is that because most first basemen and corner outfielders themselves hit the ball so well, Howard is himself significantly overrated, not being one of the better players in the league in any of the last three years. In order to truly be a dominant player at that position, you need to hit like Albert Pujols, not like Ryan Howard. Ultimately, Dunn is 25-35 runs worse than himself a very overrated player. The end result is that Dunn is only approximately 2 to 3 wins better than replacement level. Howard is closer to 4-5 wins better meanwhile.

Why do sabermetric fans miss this? Precisely because Dunn’s batting is underrated by traditional fans, the debate around Dunn has been between “good” and “no good”, rather than between “good” and “good enough to make up for his awful defense”. That debate doesn’t get to take place in sabermetric circles, because it’s pre-empted by first one. The result is an overrated player, and one who does not differ substantially from Pat Burrell, who signed this offseason for a meager $8M per year.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Correct me if I’m wrong- but doesn’t this completely fail to account for the fact that Dunn is in LF, and Howard at 1B?

But this also ignores another vital point. If Dunn is signed for only 1 year 5-6 million dollars, Ryan Howard isn’t the comparison, value-wise. Luis Castillo is, contract-wise. Raul Ibanez is, position and free agent-wise.

Here’s Ibanez in terms of value runs, as per Fangraphs, last four years: 20.7, 30.2, 8.9, 22.3

Adam Dunn: 32.9, 20.7, 33.4, 18.3.  Go back to 2004, and he had a 49.7-which bests any of Howard’s years, save 2006.

Castillo, just for fun, was at 5.4 runs last year, and if Dunn signs for 5-6 million, will be making about the same amount. Yes, different economy, etc., but still a sobering thought.

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