By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009
Standing 6 feet 6 with a lumberjack's build -- wieldy and broad -- Adam Dunn masks his most unique asset behind the caricature sketch. At first glance, Dunn is the quintessential boom-or-bust slugger, prone to the extremes -- strikeouts and home runs. He's indelicate. He swings hard. He's easy to lampoon.
But during the first two weeks of the Washington Nationals' season, Dunn has reinforced the counterintuitive truth about his batting approach. It's based on refinement and discipline, not some unchecked desire to swing at everything. As Washington learns about the free agent it acquired this offseason, the early returns are terrific. Dunn leads the team in home runs (four) and in its clubhouse, showing an easygoing friendliness and a willingness to reach out to all players. His on-base percentage (.476) and slugging percentage (.609) reflect all-star levels, and with any luck, Dunn can maintain his batting average (.283).
Still, Dunn's most notable virtue stands in the background, less eye-catching -- but perhaps more important -- than the power. This year, Dunn is tied for the major league lead in walks. He works pitch counts with persistence -- an example of patience that Manager Manny Acta thinks others can use as a model. On average, Dunn is seeing 4.48 pitches every plate appearance, the fourth-highest total in the National League. Only one NL player, Los Angeles's Andre Ethier, has seen more total pitches.
Dunn's willingness to wait for his perfect pitch explains everything else about his batting. He hits home runs because he only swings when he likes the pitch. He strikes out because, oftentimes, he waits too long for his perfect pitch.
When Dunn describes his approach to batting, he talks about the strike zone as if it's a 50-acre farm. His 20-10 vision is so hypersensitive that every pitch looks exaggerated: Outside pitches are way outside, and even borderline pitches don't look hittable. "That's why I get a lot of strike calls on me on close pitches, because to me, they're just off the plate," Dunn said. "And I can't swing at it. I can't."
Dunn knows that, mostly, he's earning $10 million this season to hit. But sometimes, the secret behind that is knowing when not to hit. When Dunn first started playing baseball, the walks he always drew made him crazy. He'd come home frustrated. Fortunate enough for Dunn, his father, Skip, was years ahead of the "Moneyball" curve. Skip preached the value of a walk, saying that if nobody reached base, you'd have a world of nothing more than solo homers.
"That's where I can date it back to, I guess," Dunn said, talking about his batting eye.
Naturally, opponents tested Dunn's patience. In high school, Dunn walked so often that his coach shifted him to the leadoff spot, figuring opponents would be more inclined to throw strikes in the first at-bat of a game. By the time Dunn started playing full time in the big leagues, walking was an ingrained part of his game. In 2002, his first full year, he walked 128 times, third best in the National League. Since that season, Dunn has seen more pitches (19,296) than everyone but Bobby Abreu. His average has never topped .300, but that is Dunn's stated goal for 2009.
"He's shooting to hit .300 and drive in 100 and do the damage he does with his power," Acta said. "So I think he's off to a great start, and I think he can do it. When you have that knowledge of the strike zone, and you have the strength that this guy has, and when you walk as much as this guy does, I think you should be able to hit for a higher batting average."
This year, Dunn has been particularly selective. He's laying off the first pitch 81 percent of the time. He's laying off the second pitch 80 percent of the time. The cumulative effect -- especially in a lineup where Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes have similarly patient approaches -- has helped the Nationals develop a much-improved lineup, capable of driving starting pitchers from the game well before they want to. Three times in the latest homestand, opposing starters exited between the fourth and fifth inning with pitch counts nearing 100.
Dunn's theories on hitting make him particularly dangerous against pitchers without the best control. (He has six home runs in 17 at-bats against Kevin Millwood.) When Dunn decides to swing at a first pitch, it's generally because he loves it; he's a career .386 hitter with an 0-0 count. Among his 415 career at-bats that have gone no further than one pitch, 51 have resulted in homers.
"I have trouble swinging at the first pitch," Dunn said. "I very rarely swing at the first pitch. I just feel more comfortable, the more pitches I've seen in an at-bat. I've always walked, I've always gotten deep into counts. To me, you just have to wait those guys out. A perfectly placed pitch is pretty hard to hit. But not many pitchers can do that three consecutive times."