Friday, June 10, 2011

When the Nationals Outsmarted Everyone

Over the years, the Nationals have made some good decisions, more bad decisions, and they are on the upswing as a franchise because they've managed not to mess up the no-brainers in three straight drafts.

But the Nationals' handling of Adam Dunn--both acquiring him and deciding to let him go--is probably the savviest sequence of personnel moves the Nationals have made since 2005.

When Jim Bowden signed him in February 2009, Dunn had been sitting on the free agent market longer than anyone (especially him) ever expected. That was a weird off-season when, following the financial meltdown, the economy went into decline and MLB teams really retreated in their free agent spending.

Dunn seemed a great fit for an AL team looking for left-handed power, but the market for him just never developed, and with spring training around the corner, the Nationals were waiting with a 2-year, $20 million contract that ended up being a perfectly reasonable price to pay.

Even factoring Dunn's awful glove (and UZR hated his glove, especially as an outfielder 2009), he gave the Nationals almost 5 wins above replacement because of his .378 OBP and .533 SLG over his two seasons in DC. That didn't make him an all-star, but he was a major upgrade over the collection of yuck the team would have played in LF and 1B without him.

But wait? Am I really gushing over a Jim Bowden move? Yeah, I am. Jim did some things well, and one of his strengths was evaluating hitters. (And recruiting former Cincinnati Reds.)

And here's the best part. Because he was fired (yes he was) shortly after signing Dunn, he never had the chance to extend him, which we know he would have wanted to do. If finding undervalued bats was one of Jim's best strengths, one of his greatest weaknesses was falling in love with his own brilliant discoveries and overpaying to keep them (see: Young, Dmitri).

When Dunn's contract came up after last season, Mike Rizzo was all too happy to take the draft picks he would get in free agent compensation and let someone else overpay.

And looking at Dunn now, it looks like the Nationals let him walk just in time. I wrote a post last year about this time speculating that Dunn could be close to a Richie Sexson-like rapid decline.

The insight was nothing radically new. Dunn is a classic example of a guy with "old player skills"--i.e., a relatively narrow set of skills, usually power and patience, not speed or defense. When guys like this start lose just a bit of bat speed, they often fall apart fast.

At the time, he didn't seem to be showing signs of hitting the wall. But the statistical signs I warned about were an increase in strikeout and/or flyball rate, pitchers attacking him with more fastballs and a decline in his success off the fastball, and a drop in batting average.

This year, that's exactly what we're seeing. Dunn's K rate has spiked from 32.4% in 2009 to 35.7% last year to a horrid 42.6% this year. His career rate is 33.2%.

Pitchers are attacking him with fastballs 65% of the time, up from 59% in his career, which may seem like a small difference, but isn't. And the linear weights over on Fangraphs finds that Dunn is -0.91 runs below average per 100 fastballs seen this year, compared to 2.10 last year and 1.63 for his career. Again, those may seem like small, esoteric numbers, but the upshot is that pitchers are blowing him away with heat.

All that has added up to the tell-tale cratering of Dunn's batting average, which sits at .176 on Thursday.

Of course, everyone sees Dunn falling apart now. The hard part is knowing when it would happen. Maybe Mike Rizzo lucked out, or the White Sox just outbid him, but it's possible Rizzo and the team's scouts saw the decline in bat speed. Whatever, Rizzo stayed away, while the White Sox are in the first year of what looks like a miserable 4-year commitment to the second coming of Mo Vaughn.

And perhaps the biggest payoff of all came in this week's draft, when the Nationals were able to grab two high-upside, value picks in Alex Meyer and Brian Goodwin with the Dunn compensation picks.

And because they had these extra picks, it made it a lot easier for them to take a high-risk shot in the third round on Matt Purke, a pitcher considered a potential top-5 pick not long ago, before a shoulder injury derailed him. Purke isn't likely to work out, but his ceiling is that of an ace, and you gotta love the aggressiveness.

The Nationals organization hasn't done a lot of things well over the past few years, but when it came to Adam Dunn, they truly made all the right moves.


Rich said...

I was thinking about that Sexson reference you made a year ago. because some writer made the same comparison a few days ago.

Welcome back by the way!

John said...

Really good assessment. The debate around Dunn had been focused on his defensive liabilities, and less so about his reduced bat speed.

It's a different debate all together, but if rejecting Dunn was a smart, calculated move, how would you rate the Werth signing now?

Steven said...

I said at the time of the Werth signing that it was a massive overpay (that's obvious) and that most likely it would be an albatross, similar to the Soriano deal with the Cubs. I haven't seen anything to change my mind on that.

peric said...

I believe Rizzo and the Lerners admitted as much. That it was a massive overpay. But I suppose it served a purpose: convincing free agents to give the Nationals serious consideration as a future employer.

Let's just hope he doesn't end up as a grossly overpaid utility outfielder.