Feeling 'normal' again, Dunn returns to form
White Sox slugger more like himself after dreadful 2011 season
CLEVELAND -- He's on pace for more than 40 home runs and more than 200 strikeouts, which can only mean one thing:Adam Dunn is Adam Dunn again. "I don't feel great," he said, "but I feel normal." And so we can dismiss the notion that Dunn not only went over the hill but straight off a cliff in a 2011 season that continues to boggle the mind and sicken the stomach. Dunn's season, in which his .159 batting average would have gone down as the lowest ever for a qualifying hitter had he gotten just six more plate appearances, was perhaps the worst in history by a traditionally good player. Nobody saw it coming. Not Dunn, and certainly not the White Sox, who had signed "Big Donkey" to a four-year, $56 million contract the previous winter. Even upon reflection, one has a hard time deciphering just what happened to Dunn. Was it the switch to the American League? The adjustment to being a designated hitter? The early-season appendectomy? Did his bat slow? Did his 31-year-old body betray him? A definitive answer has never been offered, and you can't blame Dunn one bit when he says he's done talking about it. "The largest part," he said, "is just forgetting last year." And the process of pulling it from his memory began the minute he picked up a bat in the offseason -- something he had usually sworn off in years past -- and started hacking away. "From day one, when I picked up a bat, everything felt like it should," Dunn said. "I was just waiting for this year to get here." Now that it's here, Dunn is doing his part to make 2011 look more fluke than fact. His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (0.46) has never been lower, his line-drive percentage (21.5) is up and his infield fly-ball rate (8.6) is down from the career-high 13.2 mark of a year ago. Most important, there's the homer-to-fly-ball ratio of 28.6, even better than Dunn's career norm (21.5) and a world away from the 9.6 mark he posted last season. So Dunn, mercifully, has traded in the popups for pure power, and with 10 home runs already, he's just one blast shy of his 2011 total. Some people will harp on the strikeouts, for Dunn has whiffed in each of his past 36 games (the longest such streak in more than 40 years) and his 34.1 strikeout rate is glaring, even by his standards. But Dunn is still drawing his walks at a satisfying clip (18.1 percent of his plate appearances), and power has a way of earning a player forgiveness for his flubs. New White Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto made that clear when he told Dunn in Spring Training, "Don't try to be a good hitter, because you are not." In other words, stick to your strengths. "To be honest, I've never worried about batting average," Dunn said. "My thing is getting on base and driving in runs. If I'm getting on base and driving runs, I'm doing my job. I don't care how I get on. Obviously, with runners in scoring position, you want to have a good batting average. But other than that, I don't care if I have a two-out single or a two-out walk. The result is the same. You're on." This is the mentality that, 2011 aside, has served Dunn well throughout the past dozen years. For seven seasons, from 2004-10, he hit at least 38 home runs -- something only Babe Ruth and Rafael Palmeiro had done before him. Now, having already hit double digits in the homer tally, Dunn is back on track to tout that kind of total. He's back to being Adam Dunn. And the truth is, being Adam Dunn has never been more valuable, given the lowly state of today's power production. The 40 home runs that were Dunn's average output from 2004-10? Only two players -- Jose Bautista and Curtis Granderson -- reached that number last year. Only 4,552 homers were hit last season -- the fewest since 1995 and nearly 1,000 fewer than in 2001, when Dunn was a rookie. This year, even with Josh Hamilton doing his part to pick up the pace, hitting four homers Tuesday night, the Major Leagues are currently on track for 4,561 homers. "The game's changing," Dunn said. "It's getting harder and harder to hit home runs. Pitchers are obviously a lot better. They've closed the gap between the pitchers you feast on and the elite ones. They've closed the gap to where everybody's good, man." So what Dunn is doing carries perhaps even more weight than it did in his so-called prime years. He looked plenty past his prime a year ago. And long after Dunn retires, people will still probably point to that season stat line and wonder where it came from. But all that matters -- to Dunn and to the White Sox -- in the here and now is that 2011 is in the past and Dunn is back to being Dunn. "I don't feel I'm doing great, but there have been some good results," he said. "It kind of feels normal." In this case, normal will do.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.