I find the bolded part very interesting. Burleson tweaked with McGwire's stand in hopes of it producing a higher batting average and more contact, the result was a down year. Sound familiar?
Great article by Mr. Damiani. I'm trying to find his email address so that I can email him and tell him what a breath of fresh air his article was.
Dunn v. Erstad
By David Damiani
So many facts of life mystify me on a daily basis. There’s the Burger King commercial with the dirtbike-riding chicken, Pennsylvania’s massive instruction manual for partnership tax returns, and Nashville artists’ refusal to record my country song about a vengeful Waffle House waitress (“She Left My Heart Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, and Topped”). Intriguing mysteries all, but the topper is the baseball press’s often absurd decisions as to who is and isn’t a good player. Take the cases of Reds outfielder Adam Dunn and Angels outfielder/first baseman Darin Erstad. Dunn has been among the most productive hitters in baseball for several seasons, Erstad one of the least. Naturally, the media has regularly lambasted Dunn while celebrating Erstad.
In 2004, 2005, and as of this writing 2006, Dunn has posted on-base percentages of .388, .387, and .372; slugging averages of .569, .540, and .541; and a combined 110 home runs (24 this season). Not many top him when it comes to creating runs. But neither the Cincinnati nor national press give much play to these prodigious numbers, choosing instead to pillory Dunn for his relatively low batting average and strikeouts. Dunn hasn’t hit better than .266 in any full season and is at .226 so far this year. He struck out 195 times in 2004, 168 times last year, and 88 to date in 2006.
Granted, “three true outcomes” hitters (extremely patient batters who often walk, strike out, or hit home runs) aren’t always aesthetically pleasant to watch. In an ideal world, Dunn would maintain his fearsome power and walk numbers while cutting down on the strikeouts and boosting his batting average. But restructuring a batter’s approach that is already successful on many levels isn’t necessarily an avenue to greater success. I am reminded of batting coach Rick Burleson’s work with Mark McGwire in 1991. At the time, McGwire was coming off two seasons of hitting in the .230s, but with over 30 home runs and a high on-base percentage in each. Burleson decided to tweak McGwire’s stance and focus him on hitting for a higher average. Other factors such as poorer training and personal problems contributed, but McGwire never found a comfortable stance and hit .201 with 22 homers in ’91. (A substantially bulkier and stronger McGwire, returning to his original stance, would later hit for much higher averages while boosting both his home run and walk totals.)
Burleson failed to recognize that McGwire was already a very valuable player for his power and patience that made pitchers work harder, and his ability to avoid making outs when he didn’t put the ball in play. Similarly, criticism of what Dunn can’t do ignores the fact that he’s one of the most dangerous offensive forces in baseball. (Not to mention that his strikeouts aren’t the result of wild, unproductive swinging but of selectivity; if Dunn were Rob Picciolo or Alfredo Griffin, one would be more concerned.) If Dunn were to focus on contact hitting and make his batting average prettier with a few more singles, a decrease in walks or extra-base hits might well accompany this revised approach and limit his effectiveness. When attempting to improve one of the game’s best offensive players, one must be advised first to do no harm—a truism that escaped Burleson and continues to elude those who deny Dunn’s greatness.
Dunn also once went 1,085 plate appearances without a sacrifice fly, a stat reviled endlessly in many media outlets. A closer look reveals that Dunn had 65 plate appearances in that stretch with a runner on third and less than two out; in those appearances he reached base 28 times. Thus, Dunn was castigated for posting a .431 on-base percentage in a particular situation over a two-year span, the criminal. Criticizing him for not notching any sacrifices stems from the false assumptions that a sacrifice fly should be a hitter’s goal and is his affirmative choice in such situations. It also supposes a fearsome batter like Dunn should limit his capabilities and give up the chance to keep a rally going by making an out, or swing at bad pitches in the hopes of lofting one rather than accepting a walk. The absurd fetishization of outs may have reached its apex recently: as the Fire Joe Morgan blog reported, Braves broadcaster Ron Gant—who was a pretty similar hitter to Dunn, come to think of it—praised a sacrifice hit that afforded the Braves one run in a game they trailed by four, suggesting that going for an actual hit would have been greedy.
Out-worship also contributes to the perpetual inflation of Erstad, who ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian recently described as “the fiber that keeps the Angels together,” echoing dozens of sports commentators before him. Erstad, once a fine hitter and still a good defensive player, has been in a severe and premature offensive decline since his age 26 season. He posted a .309 on-base and .333 slugging percentage in 2003, and after a slight batting average-driven improvement in ’04, came up with a .325/.371 in 2005. He had a negative Value Over Replacement Player in both ’03 and ’05 and has been even worse (and injured) in ’06. These are horrible numbers for any offensive player, particularly one who frequently plays at the power position of first base.
Erstad has proudly stated that those who criticize his statistics overlook that many of his groundouts to the right side of the infield advance runners. I don’t care if they cause a rain of gold on Angel Stadium; Erstad is not a productive player by any stretch of the imagination. As to his intangible, cotton-like value as “fiber,” it’s hard to say that anyone has kept the Angels “together” considering how spectacularly they’ve underachieved. Most of Erstad’s praise as a gamer and a team leader inevitably draws on his having played college football (as a punter), which to many baseball writers gives him a mystical toughness. But what of Frank Thomas, who played tight end at Auburn? Thomas has been an infinitely more valuable player than Erstad, but the baseball press long ago decided it didn’t like him, so his name is not synonymous with grit and leadership.
All we learn from the presentation of Dunn and Erstad is that the major media despise certain classes of highly productive players and inexplicably adore certain former football players. Dunn may be a three-true-outcomes hitter, but Erstad contributes the worst outcome—outs—by the bushel. Their respective treatment tells you just about all you need to know about the baseball press.
David Damiani is a CPA with Witt Mares, PLC, in Newport News, Virginia. He is the Friday sports columnist for The American Enterprise Online.