In 2011 we had the pleasure of watching Adam Dunn go from a highly sought after left handed power bat to a walking, talking strikeout victim. As is usually stated, he fell off a cliff. An argument could be made that he actually stumbled off the edge sometime between October and March since he pretty much showed up on the Southside as trouble. A season earlier we watched the flattening out stage in the career arc of a player who likewise took a rather large plunge of his own from MLB elite to 40 man liability. This time in the form of Andruw Jones. Jones didn’t have as steep a decline, but he was much more valuable to begin with and it’s just harder to fall that far that fast.
Which decline is worse? We have the benefit of seeing a few years’ aftermath for Jones. He has landed on his feet to some extent, becoming a serviceable part-time player proving to be fairly effective in a platoon situation. The jury is technically out on Dunn, even though I’m sure the majority of us are ready to permanently etch his name in the “bust” column.
In 1997 Andruw Jones was a 20 year old centerfielder and was already a 3.9 fWAR player. If not for his breakout performance in the ’96 World Series against the Yankees, the ’97 season could be considered his introduction to stardom. He didn’t produce value that low again for 10 years. Over the next 9 seasons he averaged 6.9 fWAR topping out at 8.3 in 2005 when he hit 51 homeruns for the Braves.
Dunn also began hitting dingers at a young age. In 2001 while playing in just 66 games for the Reds he launched 19 when he was 21 years old. He spent the next 3 years improving on that (26, 27, 46) before hitting exactly 40 for a 4 year stretch between 2005 and 2008. In 2009 and 2010 he hit 38 each year for the Nationals.
The decline of Andruw Jones began in 2007. It was a stopping point for him before reaching absolute bottom. Throughout his career his batting average was not typically high or low usually hovering around the .260-.270 mark and once in 2000 managing to reach .303. Throughout that time he typically slugged near or above .500. 2007 brought him a slash line of .222/.311/.413 with 26 homeruns. The Braves saw the writing on the wall and he spent 2008 in Los Angeles waiting for playing time and hitting the In-N-Out Burger. He was noticeably larger and his game suffered. In 75 games he hit 3 HR and presented his new employers with a .158/.256/.249 line. He was a negative WAR player that year. His high value to begin with masked his fall a little bit, but 2008 and the years leading to It show a loss of about 2 wins a year until 2008 where he dropped roughly 5 wins from the year previous. In 2009 he got back into the positive value column for the Rangers before arriving in Chicago and allowing the fine citizens on the Southside to watch him put up a .230/.341/.486 for the year. That line pretty much matches the seasons sandwiching his season with the Sox and I would doubt it gets much better or worse before he calls it quits.
Adam Dunn didn’t have the same warning signs, the same flag seasons. Whereas a large amount of Jones’ value was defensive, Dunn’s was entirely on the offensive side and thus never reached the same heights. Nonetheless he mashed at a fairly consistent rate from 2001-2010. His slash line in 2010 was .260/.356/.536; odd looking but productive, the line of a man that beats up baseballs and puts cramps in pitcher’s necks. The Nationals wanted to keep him, and why not? His season was good for 3.5 fWAR and who couldn’t use a guy like that? The price wasn’t right though, and good old Kenny Williams had been sweet on Adam for quite some time. The White Sox ponied up $56M for the behemoth of a left hander to be their Designated Hitter in 2011, and unfortunately through 2014 as well. It seemed, at first, a breath of fresh air for a team that saw a lot more of Mark Kotsay in the 2010 campaign than is typically healthy for an offense. I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you how this turned out. But I’m a bit of a sadist I suppose, so I’m going to share anyway. Dunn hemorrhaged wins losing about 6 fWAR from the season prior. His slash line is one of the worst I’ve ever seen for a player that inexplicably came to the plate nearly 500 times. .159/.292/.277. If you hadn’t seen it happen in person you’d want to re-work the math yourself. He endured the wrath of the Sox faithful day after day, strikeout after strikeout. One of the more pronounced falls from grace the league had ever seen and he had the “misfortune” of experiencing his massive decline in the first year of a massive contract. How far this goes is impossible to say, for a few more months anyway. I don’t see how it can go any lower. If the White Sox present him with a long enough noose to hang himself with then it’s really a shame on them situation. I also don’t see how he can go back to his old production and a best case scenario may be walking the path of Andruw Jones, leveling off into an above average part time player. He’ll be bringing in a lot of money for a player of that level, but it’s better than the alternative.
So who fell harder? Both are still active and Dunn hasn’t had a chance to redeem his terrible season, perhaps showing an off year instead of a decline (wishful thinking). That being so, you might be inclined to call it a draw for at least another year. However, have a look at what Jones may have forfeited. What if he had been hit in the eye with a baseball before the decline? Kirby Puckett played in 12 MLB seasons, hit 207 HR and a .318/.360/.477. Jones, in his first 12 seasons, hit .263/.342/.497 with 368 HR and was a far superior fielder. Whether you are willing to listen to FanGraphs (270.3 defensive runs vs. -15) or Baseball Reference (23.9 dWAR vs. -1.8) the point is clear: no contest. Jones was the superior player and Kirby Puckett is in the Hall of Fame. If Jones had been cut short before his decline, his case would be stronger, fair or not. So in the battle of the declines between Andruw Jones and Adam Dunn, I’d have to say that Andruw Jones wins. And in decline wars, a win is a loss.