MINNEAPOLIS -- Don’t look now but the Adam Dunn shift has almost vanished entirely.
Disgusted that he felt good at the plate but had only poor results to show for it, the White Sox slugger dramatically switched his approach in early June. A veteran pull-hitter known for his long-ball prowess, Dunn has worked to become more of a straightaway hitter in his 13th season in the majors.
His well-rounded attack hasn’t just made Dunn a more complete hitter -- it has forced teams to take notice.
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The Minnesota Twins, whom the White Sox beat 5-2 at Target Field on Friday, are the fourth straight team to have played Dunn with a straight up defense. Though both of Dunn’s hits on Friday, including his 28th home run, a solo shot, went to the right side, it’s clear the slugger has a more balanced approach at the plate.
“Ever since I started getting shifted, it was like, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Dunn said. “You do everything right and you hit a ball as hard as you can in short right field, where maybe it’s even a double, and it’s an out. But the thing I’ve done for the most part all year is just have been more consistent hitting...This is the best it’s been since I’ve been here.”
The numbers back that assessment.
Dunn got out to a horrid start this season that had some worried the reigning American League comeback player of the year would regress to 2011, when he hit .159 with 11 home runs.
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Despite a 2-for-46 spell in April, which saw his average dip to .100, Dunn remained confident. Unlike in 2011, when he struck out once every 2.34 plate appearances, Dunn didn’t feel lost at the plate.
He felt like he and hitting coach Jeff Manto had discovered a good approach and the results would come. But by early June, Dunn realized he needed a new plan as he found far too many would-be base hits were taken away by a dramatic defense that featured as many as three defenders to the right of second base.
Despite sometimes gaping holes at shortstop, Dunn continued to pull the ball and pull some more. The below spray chart from texasleaguers.com illustrates how from April 1 to June 7 the majority of balls Dunn put in play went to the right side.
Over those 8 1/2 weeks, Dunn produced rough numbers even with a hot streak in between. He had a .156/.256/.377 slash line with 13 homers and 31 RBIs and a 25:76 walk to strikeout ratio. He struck out once every 2.99 plate appearances and had a .162 batting average on balls in play.
Finally, Dunn had enough and decided to take advantage of the holes the opposition provided at shortstop and down the line.
“It’s probably a little bit of a change, but I think everybody makes adjustments over the course of their career and it has helped him,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. ‘The idea you only help your team if you hit homers (isn’t true) unless you’re (Miguel) Cabrera.”
Dunn said he decided to abandon his “stupid, stubborn ways.” After going over spray charts with third-base coach Joe McEwing, Dunn has decided to take what the defense gives him even if it means fewer home runs.
“Sometimes I’ll get up there with a runner on second and I look and there’s a huge hole almost at shortstop and you’re basically giving yourself up, but you’re really not,” Dunn said. “If you hit the ball over there, it’s a run. I’ll literally get jammed as bad as I can get jammed and it’s a slow roller out there that barely reaches the outfield grass and yet it gets the job done.”
Since June 8, Dunn’s spray chart is far more balanced. From Aug. 1-15 alone, he had 16 balls hit to the left side of second base.
Teams have been forced to play him in normal positioning as such and Dunn’s production has soared.
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From June 8 to Aug. 15, Dunn had a .309/.416/.549 slash line with 14 home runs and 40 RBIs. He has walked 38 times and struck out only 58 over the 10-week period, an average of one whiff every 4.22 plate appearances. His batting average on balls in play has also soared from .162 in the first part of the season to .366.
McEwing is impressed by Dunn’s ability.
“By him going to left with consistency it’s definitely going to force teams to play more straight up,” McEwing said. “I think people don’t understand how athletic and how much of a good hitter he actually is. They see his big body frame and thinks he’s a home run hitter. But when you look back over the last 10 or 11 years, he could be a three-hole hitter, a four-hole hitter or a leadoff hitter. He scores close to 100 runs a year. It’s remarkable.”
Dunn knows there’s a trade-off involved.
The man they affectionately call the Big Donkey, who has 434 career home runs through Friday, can’t possibly hit as many long balls with this approach.
But he’s hardly about to become a singles hitter, either.
“It’s not even going to be close, but I don’t feel like I can’t hit homers,” Dunn said. “I’m not going up saying ‘Watch this pretty single to left.’ Ain’t happening. But what I’ve done a lot better job, for the most part when I do get two strikes, is find a way to put it in play or slap it somewhere and see what happens.”
Dunn’s two hits on Friday brought his average to .236, the highest it has been this late in the season since 2010.
He has received plenty of validation these last 10 weeks he has chosen the correct path. But the biggest dose came Aug. 7 against legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
With two outs, Gordon Beckham on second base and the White Sox down a run, Dunn stepped in against Rivera, who had struck him out in each of their previous four meetings. Rivera quickly got ahead in the count 0-2 and Dunn decided to stick with his approach, which paid off when he singled past third baseman Alex Rodriguez to drive in the tying run.
“I would say that’s fair because you know what he’s capable of doing and that’s the cutter inside and blow your thumb up,” Dunn said. “For me to be able to stick with what I’ve been doing and hit a backdoor cutter and put it in play, that kind of shows what we’ve been working on and I stayed the course even when it was going bad.”