The Adam Dunn that Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein sees every day is not the Adam Dunn that the rest of the baseball world is convinced they know. This version is a serious student of the game, his devotion occasionally masked by wisecracks but no less genuine.
It is the Adam Dunn that stubbornly ignored overtures from American League teams before signing with the Nationals so he could spend each day confronting the biggest flaw in his game - his defense.
This player is the first one in the Nationals’ clubhouse each day, poring over video of his own at-bats and upcoming pitchers. He’s the one that took jujitsu in the offseason to improve his footwork and showed up early to spring training to speed up his development before his first full year at first base. And he’s the one that, before possibly his last chance to get the multi-year megadeal that’s eluded him, retooled a hitting philosophy he’s used his whole career in favor of one that could make him even better.
“It’s impressive to see him the way I get to see him, that nobody else does, underneath and working and video and everything,” Eckstein said. “It’s impressive.”
Eckstein knows this side of Dunn because he’s spent the last two years with the slugger, the two of them gradually nudging his hitting plan away from the patient-to-a-fault playbook that’s led to Dunn racking up called strikeouts by the dozens. The approach they’ve arrived at is unmistakably more aggressive than anything Dunn has used in the past. On full display in his first three-homer game on Wednesday night, Dunn’s new plan is turning him into a more complete hitter than he’s ever been.
His three homers, which powered the Nationals to a 7-6 win over the Padres, moved him into a tie with Cincinnati’s Joey Votto for the second-most in the National League. Dunn’s walks are down and his on-base percentage (.367) is on pace to be his lowest in seven years. But in exchange for a slightly less patient Dunn, the Nationals are getting a more complete hitter.
He’s hitting .280 now, on track to shatter his previous best of .267 he set last year. He’s got 25 doubles in just 84 games, tied for third in the NL; his career high is 35. His .572 slugging percentage is second-best in the NL, also trending toward a career-best, and despite hitting just five of his 20 homers with men on base, Dunn is finding more RBI opportunities, knocking in 54 with more tools at the plate.
“To be honest with you, that’s something I’ve been trying to do my whole career and never been able to do it,” Dunn said. “I don’t know what clicked or what’s been going on, being able to swing early in counts. I know the walks are down, but I don’t care about walks. I care about driving the ball. The first pitch might be the best one you get. Nine times out of 10, I’d always take that pitch. I’m trying to be more aggressive now.”
Changing Dunn’s approach has never been a focus of Eckstein’s; he said Dunn is such a natural at the plate, he’ll occasionally try to stay out of his way. But in their frequent conversations over the last two years, they’ve both seen a common scenario: instead of driving in runs on close pitches, Dunn has spent too much time looking for the walk, effectively abdicating his role as the run producer.
“It goes back to last year at times when he first came over to the Nationals,” Eckstein said. “He would take and take and take and take and take, and he would potentially give away two or three pitches that he could have hit pretty stinking hard, which maybe limited some of his RBI opportunities.”
Said Dunn: “I used to sit a certain pitch, and if I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t swing. That’s what put me in a hole. Now, I just kind of look location, and if it’s there, it doesn’t matter what pitch it is.”
And the numbers bear out a different mentality this year. Dunn is swinging at 28.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, six percent more than any year in his career. But he’s also just swinging more, at a career-high 45.6 percent of pitches. That includes balls in the strike zone (67.9 percent), and Dunn is finding places to drive them; against the severe lefty shifts he often sees, he’s driving more balls to the opposite field than he has in the past.
“That’s a tough thing to do,” manager Jim Riggleman said of Dunn’s changes. “When you’ve spent as many years as Adam’s played ball knowing the strike zone, and realizing that he’s going to go a little deeper in counts and still do damage, and now swing a little earlier. He’s still got a great plate discipline. He still walks plenty. But he’s doing a lot of damage right now.”
The change has been gradual, not instantaneous, but this is a risky year for Dunn to be tinkering under the hood. He’s a free agent after the season, and the Nationals have engaged in continuing, if still abstract, talks with agent Greg Genske about a contract extension.
More presently, though, Dunn is the subject of trade rumors (which he hates) and most of them involve American League teams (which he hates even more).
Even though his defensive work has raised his fielding to almost an average level (his UZR was -0.6 runs below replacement as of Wednesday), it’s as if Dunn is still fighting to re-educate the industry about what kind of player he is, or at least wants to be.
He’s always stayed on just this side of franchise player status, and he’s paid the price for it.
But if he keeps it up, maybe Dunn will get everything he wants - the new contract to stay with the team he’s come to love, and some acknowledgement as the complete player he’s trying to become.
“He doesn’t worry about what people don’t see,” Eckstein said. “He just goes out and tries to take care of his business, and be a good teammate, and be a good clubhouse influence, and ultimately show up ready to win.”