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A Farewell To Adam Dunn, Sabermetric Bellwether

One footnote in the wake of the Oakland Athletics’ agonizing wild card loss Tuesday night was the retirement of A’s designated hitter Adam Dunn.

Dunn had never participated in the postseason before, and his first (and last) game as a member of a playoff team came without so much as an appearance on the diamond. He finished his 14-year Major League Baseball stint with a résumé that’s undeniably notable — he ranks 35th all-time in career home runs and 40th in career walks — but he will never be considered Hall of Fame-worthy.

Dunn’s most prominent place in the fabric of the game, then, is symbolic. Spanning the “Moneyball” era almost perfectly, Dunn’s career served as a bellwether for the growth, acceptance and, ultimately, the maturity of sabermetrics.

In some ways, that status was a fait accompli. After all, Dunn graced the cover of Baseball Prospectus back in 2002, following a rookie season that saw him place among the top 30 hitters in baseball by OPS despite a mediocre batting average and plenty of strikeouts.

Because he provided value with walks and power instead of contact hitting, Dunn was initially highlighted by statheads as the type of player who would frequently fall through the cracks of traditional analysis. Before sabermetrics became mainstream, strikeout-prone players like Dunn were disparaged — just take a trip through Fire Joe Morgan‘s Adam Dunn-tagged posts for a taste of the aspersions cast in Dunn’s direction over his whiff-happy ways — while statheads kept countering with the mantra that (for batters, at least) strikeouts are essentially no worse than any other out.

And over time, MLB seems to have finally agreed: Its leaguewide rate of strikeouts per out hit a new all-time high for eight years running, including 2014. This new normal has, of course, spawned plenty of lamentations about the state of the game, but the explosion of strikeouts apparently hasn’t yet reached levels that would cause the game’s decision-makers to change course and stigmatize them again.

You’d think this growing acceptance of strikeouts would result in a newfound appreciation of Dunn’s career, free from the shame his many K‘s once carried. But the great irony is that as sabermetric principles became so mainstream that Dunn’s batting value was properly evaluated, the state of analysis also improved to the point that baserunning and defense could be appraised with far greater accuracy than ever before. This was bad news for Dunn, a very large, very slow man who was of little use when holding a glove instead of a bat.

Whether you look at Baseball-Reference.com or FanGraphs, Dunn was worth something in the neighborhood of 20 runs below average on the basepaths, making him one of the 40 or so worst baserunners of his generation. And defensively, Dunn’s value takes a major hit. Despite frequently playing low-difficulty positions at the far left end of the defensive spectrum (leading to a negative positional adjustment), Dunn was comically below-average relative to his positional peers. To wit: In 2009, Dunn somehow posted -43 Defensive Runs Saved while splitting time between first base and the two outfield corners, giving him the worst defensive season relative to positional average in baseball history. And between the twin factors of position and performance relative to positional average, Dunn rates as MLB’s worst defensive player ever in the estimation of Baseball Reference.

Sabermetrics giveth and Sabermetrics taketh away.

In the end, Dunn’s career represents the maturation of statistical analysis in baseball. Originally, it was thought that a player’s defense was of little consequence as long as he was productive at the plate; in “Moneyball,” there’s a passage quoting former Oakland A’s consultant Eric Walker as saying fielding was “at most 5 percent of the game” — a statement that rings particularly ludicrous in today’s age of BABIP and rampant defensive shifts. If the first stage of sabermetric proselytization was convincing the public that Dunn-esque hitters who rarely put the ball in play had value, the second stage was persuading them to look at the value driven by factors beyond hitting. (Not coincidentally, large segments of the recent MVP wars between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera were fought on this ground.)

Dunn’s profile made him a polarizing contemporary case study at each stage of the sabermetric mainstreaming process, a legacy that should give him a special place in baseball history.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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