Don’t get me wrong, I like Adam Dunn. He’s probably one of my favorite players, and I love to watch him hit. But the man cannot play defense. Since 2005, Defensive Runs Saved (see “Rdrs” on Baseball-Reference) estimates that he’s allowed 96 runs more than average defenders at the positions he has played (first base, left field, and right field). Dunn’s defensive short-comings are not secret either, which is why I’ve always wondered why he has played his entire career in the National League.
If the DH didn’t exist, Dunn would still be a valuable baseball player; Dunn’s offense more than makes up for his fielding, but the fact that another league exists where he could hide his glove on the bench has always bothered me. Markets normally allocate resources to their most highly valued use. Dunn’s a good player in the NL, but he’d be even better in the AL as a DH. Why didn’t an AL team pick up Dunn through a trade or sign him as a free agent until now? Maybe the Cincinnati Reds wanted too much in return, the Washington Nationals valued him too much as a free agent, there was a glut of DH-types and a lack of offensive options in the NL, or teams just ignored his defense. I just don’t know.
In my book, I use Dunn as an example of a player who hasn’t been properly employed by his teams (Jeff Francoeur is another, grrrr!). To do this, I compare what Dunn would be worth as a DH to what he’s worth when he plays in the field. Now that the Chicago White Sox and Dunn have agreed to a four-year, $56 million deal I thought I’d see what Dunn would be worth as a position player versus a DH.
As a fielder, I estimate Dunn to be worth $49 million for the next four seasons; however, as a DH his value increases to $54 million—a difference of over $1 million per year. Still, as a DH this contract seems a little excessive; though, if the White Sox anticipate being a high-win team, then the White Sox may be far enough along the revenue curve to boost Dunn’s value to the range of his contract.
These estimate also reveal something about the importance of defense for valuing players. Let’s say I didn’t have a way to measure defensive performance (I use John Dewan’s Plus/Minus, which didn’t exist until recently), and I just assumed Dunn was an average defender. In this case, I estimate Dunn to be worth $61 million, quite a bit more than what he’s worth as a DH. Even though defense is much less important than offense when valuing position players, it is important. I’m thankful that we now have better tools for evaluating fielding, so that we can better value players.