I noticed in today’s box scores that Adam Dunn hit his 21st home run of the season. He’s currently (as I write this) batting .198 and is on a pace to hit 44 HRs this year. If he reaches the 40 home run mark again while failing to raise his batting average over the Mendoza Line, he will break the record he set last year for the lowest batting average (.204) by a player to hit 40 or more HRs in a season.
Adam Dunn is the kind of all-or-nothing hitter who walks, strikeouts or hits it long in roughly half of all his plate appearances (in fact, Dunn is at exactly 50% entering today’s games for his career) that has become fairly common in today’s game for the first time in baseball history. Thanks largely to sabermetrics, the stigma against striking out a lot has evaporated. Add to that better defense in today’s game, compared to generations past, and batting averages for this type of player were bound to fall.
Even so, it’s a pretty incredible feat to hit less than .250 in a season while still managing to hit 40 or more home runs. By my count, it’s only been done 12 times in all of baseball history, and four of those times were done by Dunn.
Here is a list of those 12 times:
Harmon Killebrew (1959) .242 & 42 HRs
Harmon Killebrew (1962) .243 & 48
Gorman Thomas (1979) .244 & 45
Darrell Evans (1985) .248 & 40
Jay Buhner (1997) .243 & 40
Jose Canseco (1998) .237 & 46
Greg Vaughn (1999) .245 & 45
Adam Dunn (2005) .247 & 40
Adam Dunn (2006) .234 & 40
Adam Dunn (2008) .236 & 40
Adam Dunn (2012) .204 & 41
Curtis Granderson (2012) .232 & 43
Aside from low batting averages and extreme power, these players generally walked a lot and struck out even more. Jose Canseco in 1998 was the only player to walk less than once every ten plate appearances, and he just missed. Darell Evans in 1985 was the only player to strike out less than 100 times — he struck out only 85 times that year.
Something else we can conclude from this list: Harmon Killebrew was clearly a man ahead of his time, and the player in baseball history most like today’s Adam Dunn. Killebrew was a better hitter and had more power, at least once you take into account hitting in the eras in which he and Dunn played, but otherwise the similarities as hitters are obvious.
Further, Adam Dunn is taking the clear trend towards more of these seasons over the last twenty years to extreme places. Dunn’s 2012 batting average was a full 30 points below the next closest low-batting 40 HR season, and he’s threatening to break his own record this year.
It’s worth noting, though, that Curtis Granderson’s 2012 season featured the second lowest batting average ever for a player to hit 40 dingers in a season. While home run numbers have dropped with the end of the steroids era, batter strikeout totals are still increasing. This suggests that Dunn may not represent the apogee of this trend. Instead, he may simply be a forerunner, as Harmon Killebrew was in the late 1950’s and 1960’s.