Looking Back on Former Cincinnati Red Adam Dunn


Former Cincinnati Red Adam Dunn has reached the end of his baseball rope. After a 14-year career, the man affectionately nicknamed “Big Donkey” will be riding off into the sunset.

This journey begins all the way back in 1998. Signed on at the University of Texas as a quarterback (imagine that, giant Adam Dunn under center in Austin), Dunn was selected in the second round by the Cincinnati Reds, 50th overall. After much deliberation, Dunn decided his path to stardom was paved on a diamond and not a gridiron.

It took just over three years for the odyssey to culminate throughout the minor leagues with a big league promotion, but on July 20, 2001, at age 21, Dunn made his debut. He batted sixth in a lineup that featured Reds greats Ken Griffey Jr. and Sean Casey. He would man left field—a position he would stake claim to for over half a decade in the Queen City. Finishing the night 1-for-3 with a walk, Dunn had arrived.

There may not be many careers that have taken a more obscure path than Dunn’s. In the moment, he seems underappreciated. As time plots by, he will flourish—a misunderstood flower amongst a generation of enhanced weeds. When it was trendy to get big and slug home runs, Dunn was already massive and cranking the long ball.

Three baseball statistics will be infinitely more important to Dunn’s legacy than the rest: home runs, walks, and strikeouts. While he has never once led the league in home runs, he was one more massively productive season away from the elusive 500 home run mark, which mythically assures members access to Cooperstown. He would go on to lead the league in walks twice and strikeouts four times.

In just over 1,000 games with Cincinnati from 2001-2008, Dunn would crank 270 of 462 career home runs. He hit them in Cinergy; he hit them in Great American. If only Dunn had been a better-equipped defensive left fielder for the Reds—he could have potentially reached that elusive 500 home run plateau.

While Dunn was an All-Star twice (only once with the Reds, in 2002, a year he did not mash even 40 home runs), he never so much as finished in the top-20 of an MVP vote. Was it the defense? The miserable batting average? The strikeouts? Truly, it was a combination of all three.

Firstly, the defense. For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report named Dunn to their all-time worst 40 fielders list. That nomination more than likely had something to do with the fact that for his career, Dunn boasts a -29.5 defensive WAR. Yes, you read that properly. Dunn, over the course of his career, cost his teams 30 wins due to just his defense. Considering he also DH’ed for a prolonged period of time, that is an absolutely astounding number. We all knew Dunn was not the most gifted defensively, but his single-season worst -5.2 came in 2009—thankfully with the Washington Nationals.

Somewhere a Brad Pitt/Billy Beane Internet meme sits smirking, “But can he get on base?” You’re damn right Adam Dunn could get on base. It’s just a shame that in the era of on-base percentage, he was still continuously dumped on for refusing to A.) Ever hit the ball the other way, or B.) Adapt from his “feast or famine” strategy of home run or bust.

The highest single-season batting average Dunn ever produced was in 2009 as a member of the Nationals when he hit .267. His eight years in Cincinnati produced a .247 clip—but, his on-base percentage was .380. His OPS? A clean .900. Those that claim the strikeout doesn’t matter offensively love Dunn, because ultimately, he put up the numbers general managers could defend in job interviews.

From 2004-2006, Dunn led the National League in strikeouts each season. His high was 195 in ’04, but that would be conservative in comparison to his 222 in 2012 as a member of the Chicago White Sox. While his strikeouts could be maddening, his home runs were stoic.

My favorite Adam Dunn season? 2012. He was coming off what can be constituted as literally the worst season of any player ever in 2011, where he actually received 415 at-bats, got paid $12 million and batted .159. Not even his on-base percentage could save him there as it only scratched out at .292.

There was rampant speculation about how Dunn’s demise was upon him. Yet, in 2012, he delivered one of the most dizzying statistical seasons ever once again—this time in a positive way—kind of.

He would bat just .204, yet deliver a reasonable .333 on-base percentage. He would smack 41 home runs, yet drive in only 96 runs. He led the league in strikeouts, but also walks. He very rarely, if ever, played the field, yet in limited time still managed to cost his team nearly two wins defensively. To cap off the strangeness—he would make the All-Star team. If there were ever a season that explained the enigma that is Adam Dunn, that would be it.

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So, the book has closed on the dizzying journey of Dunn’s career. Some say he will be enshrined one day—just in Cincinnati, not Cooperstown. While the latter is highly doubtful, even with his impressive power numbers, I cannot image the Reds leaving him out. Lost amongst all the hoopla of statistics, Dunn was a favorite of media and fans alike. It has become rare for a player to become loved during a time when the team is horrendous, but that was exactly what the Big Donkey accomplished.

From Cincinnati to Arizona to Washington to Chicago to finally Oakland, Dunn covered nearly the entire country. The one place he never got to play full-time was his home of Texas. Now, he can go wherever he pleases, as his baseball career is finally…Dunn.