Sunday, November 05, 2006

Adam Dunn: The Rewards & Risks of Refining Outliers  

You can never do just one thing
--Garrett Hardin

In making adjustments to complex systems, as biologist Garrett Hardin says, you can never do just one thing. Classic case in wildlife biology is the Australia's seemingly clever counter-attack on the native cane beetle...a non-native cane toad to chow down on 'em. Two problems: the cane toad is baboon butt ugly, looking exactly like some weird bio-engineered synthesis of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal) and Rep. Denny Hastert (R-Ill), and without any natural predators, there are even fewer organisms willing to eat it to keep its population down than those willing to eat the deep-fried burritos the Baltimore Memorial Stadium concession stands used to sell.

The more unusual the system, the more risky it is to pull on a pick-up stick...if you don't think it through, it's likely to come crashing down, and if you do think it through, it might just fool you and do it anyway. Normal everyday systems respond better to crisp pre-planning, but the outliers on your staff roster, the ones who have unusual palettes of talents or eccentric personalities or work styles are very risky to experiment with. That doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment, by the way, especially when their results could be better, but it means there's a goodly amount of risk that generally outweighs the potential reward.

So it's with a little concern, but a bit of hope, too, that I read that new Cincinnati Reds batting coach Brook Jacoby is looking to address team slugger Adam Dunn's way-over- the- top-strikeout rate (about 183 per season). Dunn is an outlier the way a Taliban Convention in Vegas is an outlier. He's a platypus amongst ducks, a Starbucks in South Dakota.

As reported by Marc Lancaster for the Cincy Post:

Dunn Job 1 for Jacoby
New coach has ideas

Brook Jacoby will work on fine-tuning the other 24 players' swings, too, but his prior experience working with Adam Dunn could prove his biggest asset. The Reds hired Jacoby as their hitting coach Friday, hoping his well-rounded approach will help Dunn and others rebound from a late-season collapse that doomed Cincinnati's playoff chances.

Jacoby spent the previous four seasons tutoring hitters in the Texas organization, but spent three years in the Reds' farm system prior to that. Among his pupils was Dunn, whom Jacoby first encountered in 2000 when the outfielder was in Dayton and the former big-league third baseman was the Reds' roving hitting instructor. They also worked together in Louisville the following season.

Jacoby said on a conference call Friday that he has some ideas for working with Dunn. Will cutting down on the slugger's strikeout total be among the talking points?

"I consider 194 of them a little bit of an issue," said Jacoby. "If he were to put the ball in play a little more, I'm sure it would mean some more RBIs and possibly some more hits. It might be an approach thing with him with two strikes; it might be a mechanical thing. I'll have to sit down and talk to him and we'll figure it out. I'd like to think something could be improved there."

In some ways, Dunn is the Reds' most potent hitter. He uses most of his 6'6" frame to swing very hard. He gets great leverage and has had at least 40 homers in each of the last three seasons. He's part of one of the two clusters of persistent strikeout victims: he's patient, tending to see about 4.25 pitches per plate appearance compared to his league's norm of 3.82. He's not a member of the swing at anything crowd; he walks over 100 times in a typical campaign. (Here's some great analysis, beautifully presented, from Cyclone792 at the Reds Zone weblog on Dunn's approach). But by trying to work the pitcher into a hitter's count, he gets deep enough into at bats to get to two strike counts, and once he does that, with his tall physique creating a big strike zone, he's becomes Sir Whiff A Lot.

2001 286 244 19 7% 38 13% 74 26% 0.262 0.371 0.578 0.949
2002 676 535 26 4% 128 19% 170 25% 0.249 0.400 0.454 0.854
2003 469 381 27 6% 74 16% 126 27% 0.215 0.354 0.465 0.819
2004 681 568 46 7% 108 16% 195 29% 0.266 0.388 0.569 0.957
2005 671 543 40 6% 114 17% 168 25% 0.247 0.387 0.540 0.927
2006 683 561 40 6% 112 16% 194 28% 0.234 0.365 0.490 0.855
Total 3466 2832 198 6% 574 17% 927 27% 0.245 0.380 0.513 0.893

There aren't a lot of batters like Dunn -- 44% of his plate appearances end without a ball being put in play (walk or whiff) and at the same time, he's a potent slugger, a bit like Darryl Strawberry but better (a bunch more walks, a handful fewer whiffs).

But he's not a superstar. The Reds have had a feast or famine kind of offense, and there's nothing more feast or famine than the strikeout/homer combo. He might be more in the specific context of the Reds team if he yielded a few dozen Ks and a couple of homers to snare a handful of extra less prodigious hits in specific situations. In general, there aren't very many players who produce offense at the rate Dunn does.

Note in the chart above the admirable consistency of the lad's output after his partial campaign as a rookie in 2001. The consistency's especially pronounced in the BB%, K% and HR%.

So he's an outlier in two dimensions: how he achieves what he does, and how uniformly he continues to produce.

BEYOND BASEBALL (we'll come back to Dunn)
This two-dimensions of outlier makes him a particularly risky candidate to tinker with. I've seen a few cases of this in my consulting. I was brought into an aerospace-related concern that had lower productivity than they wanted in an office that produced analysis reports. They believed there was a lack of discipline in the office because there was a lot of overtime booked, more than normal days-off taken and because they didn't get the normal early drafts a month or so before the final.

When I nosed around, I saw that one of the researchers was responsible for a vast percentage of (a) the work output, (b) the overtime, and (c) the extra days-off. It was his work pattern (the other three analysts were near the norm for all three, he alone was skewing the totals). The workhorse researched a lot up front, started writing late in the process. When he was on a roll, he'd stay late as long as he was productive. After a project was delivered, he tended to take some "mental health" days. He was a high-performer but an outlier in both his work hours and his pattern of grinding through a lot of research before committing it to paper (ergo, no moth-before draft). But he was the departmental asset.

They wanted to cut off his overtime and make him deliver an early draft a month before the review draft. This was one consult where I was successful in getting this client to bend to their high-performer's pattern. He just wouldn't have been able to produce as much or as well if forced to conform to formal "norms" that were essentially irrelevant to the deliverable's timeliness or quality. I suggested that if they wanted to change his approach to high-performance work, they needed to do it in ways he'd already proved himself good at...that is, cherry-pick other practices of his that he'd done better before than he was doing now. It's not guaranteed to work, but it's less risky, and can sometimes remind a staffer of some practice she's set down and forgotten about.

The equivalent tool for Dunn might be the following. Between 2005 and 2006, his OPS dropped markedly in specific two-strike counts, not all of them.


0-2 1-2 2-2 3-2
2005 .417 .334 .497 .887
2006 .235 .379 .469 .783

As you can see, there's essentially no difference in the OPS value of the outcomes of Dunn's plate appearances that resolved on pitches thrown on 1-2 and 2-2 counts. But there's a big shear-off in 3-2 pitches resolved and a monstrous one of 0-2. But there's a context that's important to note, too. Dunn had fewer 0-2 pitches resolving plate appearances in 2006 (38 instead of 48). That may be the result of intent -- being a little more careful in trying to avoid 0-2 with certain kinds of pitchers, or it might be noise. And he had 90 appearances resolved at 3-2 in 2006, compared to 80 in 2005. Again, perhaps a different work style or perhaps noise.

But as a coach, it's well worth asking the players on your rosters how this might have come about. Since Dunn's homers are half as frequent at 0-2 and 1-2 counts as they are in other appearances, it might be worth seeing if he could develop a special two strike swing that the many top sluggers incorporate (Ted Simmons & Rico Carty, for example, told me they did this). But there's no more guarantee Dunn can add this to his repertoire without degrading his success in other situations than it is the aerospace analyst could work 8-5 and deliver early drafts and still produce at the high level he had been.

When the talent is the product, you always take a chance trying to make successful producers more productive by changing that which may be the root cause of the their success.

Have you succeeded with that in the past? Failed? Do you find it hard to leave your Adam Dunn's alone or to find the formula to make them even more productive?

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