Nationals’ team president Stan Kasten was a guest host on a local sports radio talk show a couple of days ago, and was it typical Stan: schilling tickets for the team, liking all the moves the club has recently made, and promising the moon for long suffering Nationals’ fans.
Yada yada yada.
But he did say something that startled me.
Adam Dunn was a guest, and the conversation eventually got to a possible contract extension for Dunn.
Now, I would have expected that Kasten would have groveled and blown kisses and pleaded and prodded and done anything and everything he could to ingratiate himself—and the team—to the team’s big slugger.
But he didn’t do that.
Instead, he sounded almost fatherly, as if he was promising his son he could have the car for a Friday night date if he kept his room clean all week.
I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence Kasten said, “You know, many people ask me about re-signing Adam, and trust me, keeping his big bat in our lineup is very important to us, but—and I’ve said this very thing to Adam before—he has to become a better first baseman. And I think he can. He’s a gifted athlete and has the ability and talent to do it. And we want him back, we really do. But we need better defense from him.”
And then he said that if Dunn didn’t improve his defense, he’d end up being an American League designated-hitter for the rest of his career.
When the other host asked Dunn about this, he said he agreed 100 percent, saying that he needed to be a better fielder and that his spring training was going to be about getting better while working with the team’s infield coach.
Now, most of us have always assumed that Dunn was simply one of those big-lummox type of players that can hit the ball 500 feet but didn’t know what that big leather glove was for. I mean, we’ve seen this before in Frank Howard.
He’s the second coming of Dr. Strangeglove.
Kasten seems to be telling us that Dunn’s defensive problems can be attributed to his not trying hard enough, and that if he does try, he’ll get better and then the Nationals will extend his contract.
I’m wondering how many teams would pay him more than he’s making with the Nationals right now without publicly questioning his desire and effort in the field.
Let’s take a look at Dunn’s defensive numbers at first base. He’s played 162 career games there so his numbers will mimic a full season. We’ll compare him with Frank Howard and Nick Johnson, two other first basemen Washington fans are familiar with. Each player is based on a 162 game season:
Player Errors Assists Double Plays Pct.
Adam Dunn: 23 90 155 .985
Nick Johnson: 16 98 132 .988
Frank Howard: 23 92 105 .981
Dunn and Howard’s numbers are based on their career statistics. Johnson’s are from 2009, with his 129 games played expanded out to 162.
There is obviously some difference within the numbers, but not as much as you’d think. Internal numbers such as range factor are decidedly in Johnson’s favor, but that is no surprise.
Dunn will never have a lot of range. And while he certainly looked rusty when he took over the position full time, he was looking absolutely “okay” by the end of the season. Prior to 2009, Dunn had played fewer than 100 games at first, and the majority of those came before the 2006 season.
But all those balls in the dirt that rolled down the first base line in August found their way into his glove by September. As he played more games, he became more comfortable, and his play improved.
I hope that Stan Kasten won’t use Dunn’s defense as a reason the team was unwilling to extend his contract for another two or three years. I mean, it sounds so “Stanish.” “Hey everyone,” he’d say, “I really wanted to bring Adam back but his defense just wasn’t up to Nationals' standards, so we’re going to go in another direction. We wish Adam well.”
Gosh, I hope that’s not what’s happening.
The defensive model for Adam Dunn is not Adrian Gonzalez, who is a superb fielding first baseman. No, Dunn’s upside is more like the Brewers’ Prince Fielder. In 2009, Fielder made only seven errors and sported a .995 fielding percent, far above the National League average.
However, all of his internal numbers such as range and runs saved or cost were all negative, just like Dunn’s.
Dunn can become a first baseman like Fielder, a player who catches everything he can get to, but can’t get to everything he should. And that’s fine.
Players like Nick Johnson and Lyle Overbay have to be great fielders to make up for lower-than-expected power production at first. But only four National League first baseman—Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard—hit more home runs than Dunn did.
How much better must Dunn be defensively before the Washington Nationals are willing to pony up three or four more years?
All I ask of Adam Dunn is to do the very best he can defensively while hitting all those long home runs.
Perhaps this is all a ploy by Stan Kasten to justify either offering Dunn a smaller contract or no contract at all. Or maybe he really things he can be that much better at first.
Perhaps one day the Nationals can be this firm with its talent, but that day has yet to come. Personally, I think groveling and butt-kissing is about the best thing they have going for them right now.