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Who will Adam Dunn take at-bats from with the Athletics?

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Dunn figures to serve as the DH against right-handers. Who will he be replacing?

DH is just an abbreviation for "Dunn Homer."
DH is just an abbreviation for "Dunn Homer."
Thearon W. Henderson

Adam Dunn is finally an Oakland Athletic. You probably had a feeling that he'd find his way to the A's somehow, someday, some way, and now here he is. Even in today's landscape, where teams understand the value of walks more than they did a dozen years ago and Billy Beane isn't as enamored with sluggish sluggers, Dunn is still undervalued as a guy who does one thing exceptionally well (hit homers) while being terrible at every other aspect of the game. If you can find a niche for him in which he can hit mostly against right-handers without having to ever play defense, you'll likely have a player worth more than whatever it cost to get him.

When Dunn was a free agent prior to the 2011 season, I kind of wanted the A's to sign him. They were coming off a solid season built around pitching and defense, and they needed to add power to the lineup if they wanted to build on that success. They ended up getting Josh Willingham, and Dunn signed with the White Sox. Although that 2011 team didn't go anywhere, it still looked like they'd dodged a bullet after Dunn posted a .569 OPS in Chicago and threatened the MLB record for worst batting average ever. Sure, he bounced back and hit 75 homers over the next two seasons, but in those years the A's were busy winning back-to-back division titles with a surprisingly good offense of their own. Now, three and a half years later, the A's once again found themselves in need of some power to complement a strong pitching staff, and Dunn has already come to the rescue.

Now that the Big Donkey is here, what will that mean for the team? The A's have him for a month, and it is expected that they'll use him as a designated hitter against right-handers -- his career splits against lefties aren't terrible, but he's struggled against them for several years now and he's not the club's best current option against them. How sure are we that he won't play the field? For a stat-heavy answer to that, check out the background section at the end of the article. Suffice it to say, Dunn is so bad in the field that, at his worst, he is capable of posting MVP-caliber offensive stats and still grading out as having negative value. He is most definitely a strict DH.

The next question is, who has been DH'ing for the A's this year? Before you read on, take a guess in your mind. Which member of the Athletics has made the most starts and accrued the most plate appearances as the DH? Here's the list of the six players with the most plate appearances (team total includes all of team's PA's):

Name Games started Plate appearances Batting line
Alberto Callaspo 34 147 .206/.286/.290
John Jaso 32 140 .208/.293/.296
Yoenis Cespedes 16 69 .273/.304/.455
Coco Crisp 11 52 .188/.231/.333
Josh Donaldson 9 39 .147/.256/.353
Brandon Moss 9 38 .235/.289/.618
Team Total 561 .218/.291/.359

There is a lot to take from that table. First, Oakland's DH production has been completely unacceptable. Think about how weak the team's output has been at second base, and then consider that the DH's have only out-hit the second basemen by 58 points of OPS (.650 to .592). Mike Moustakas and Dan Uggla have comparable batting lines, and another way to put it would be "Matt Dominguez with less power." (Matt Dominguez's only skill on offense is his moderate power.) To make matters worse, the most damage was done by Cespedes, who is gone, and Moss, who is likely to be needed in the field with Coco missing time and inferior glovemen like Dunn and Jonny Gomes on board.

Why has the DH spot been so bad? A large part of it has been Jaso, who is apparently only finding success while suiting up in catching gear. This is probably a fluke, since his career numbers are mostly the same regardless of whether he catches, DH's, or pinch hits, but it at least explains some of this year's problems. It also means that the problem isn't entirely having a bad hitter in that spot, but rather having a good one who just didn't hit in those particular at-bats.

No, the clear problem is Alberto Callaspo. Note that half of his DH starts came in April, when he was hitting out of his mind, but his numbers in the above table show that he has more than made up for any positive contribution he made early in the season. What's worse, those putrid numbers aren't far off from the .231/.295/.299 line he's put up for the season overall or the .220/.255/.275 he's posted in August. This time, it is a case of simply having a bad hitter in a position dedicated solely to offense.

I'm beyond the point of wondering why Callaspo is on the team. He can't hit for average, he can't hit for power, and even his vaunted plate discipline has dipped from "elite" to merely "really good" over the last few years. He no longer walks more than he strikes out, and he now strikes out once every nine times up instead of once every 11 or 12 times. He still never swings and misses, but the contact he makes doesn't translate into hits as often as it used to -- his BABIP marks over the last three years have been .268, .266, .250. He's filled in at second a lot lately due to the team's injuries, but he's still a subpar defender there. And his base running has been awful lately, as he's made at least three costly miscues on the bases in the last few weeks and isn't particularly fast to begin with. He just brings nothing to the table, he hasn't done so for a couple years now, and I don't understand why he's still playing. I'd rather see Andy Parrino at second base when Sogard sits, because at least he can play defense, and I'd rather see Sonny Gray DH because at least that would be fun to watch.

Now that we know who has played the most DH this year, who has been playing it recently? Callaspo has been at second, so if I get my wish and he loses at-bats then it will be because Jed Lowrie is back and the Sogard/Parrino/Punto group pushes him out of the lineup. Here are the guys with the most DH starts in August:

Coco -- 7
Jaso -- 6
Callaspo -- 4
Gomes -- 3
Moss -- 2
Norris -- 2
Vogt -- 2

Coco and Jaso are out for now, so their at-bats were up for grabs anyway. Moss got a couple starts, but again, he's more likely to be playing the field this month. Gomes only starts against lefties, so his at-bats exist separately from the ones Dunn might be looking at. That leaves Callaspo, Derek Norris, and Stephen Vogt.

Norris as the DH is actually a fairly new development, since Jaso was usually the guy to take that role in the multi-catcher lineups. His platoon splits show a .918 OPS against lefties and a .707 against righties, which isn't as extreme as we feared last season but does signal room for improvement against right-handers. Furthermore, Norris batted just .202/.268/.292 in August (97 PA's), and it wasn't just bad luck -- he struck out 26 times against just seven walks, in a year in which he's otherwise racked up about as many free passes as whiffs. He might be hurting (there has been word of a sore back), or he might just be slumping, but either way I'm happy to start him mostly against lefties and give him as much of a break as possible in September. As for Vogt, he'll likely continue to get most of his reps at first base against right-handers with Moss in the outfield and backup Nate Freiman restricted to facing lefties.

So, where does that leave us? If Dunn is indeed the DH against righties, then it appears he'll be taking at-bats from a relatively useless Callaspo and a slumping Norris. Furthermore, he only has to clear a .650 OPS in order to be an improvement over Oakland's previous DH'ing contingent. Given that he was at .773 upon his arrival (and now .787 after his strong debut), he is likely to satisfy that bare minimum. He should be a big improvement to this struggling offense during the stretch drive.

Help us, Adam Dunn, you're our only hope (at DH (against righties)).

Dunn is not in the lineup on Tuesday against the lefty James Paxton. Awww! But that's OK, because Jonny Gomes is in there instead. Yay! DH platoon FTW!

***

Background: Dunn's "defense"

Dunn was mostly a DH in his four years in Chicago, but he did make 172 starts at first base for a total of 1,562 innings -- just a smidge more than one full season. In that time, he accrued a Defensive Runs Saved total of minus-22 runs, which means he cost his team about two wins in approximately one season's worth of playing time. For comparison, the worst DRS score by a first baseman this year is Jose Abreu at minus-10 (870 innings), followed by Garrett Jones and Ryan Howard at minus-9 (over 1,000 innings each). Last year, the worst was Prince Fielder at minus-13 (1,323 inning).

The last time Dunn was a full-time defender was in Washington in 2009-10, splitting his time between first base and left field. In 540 innings at first in '09, he managed to cost his team 23 runs, and in 685 innings in the outfield that same year he cost them another 20. That total of minus-43 defensive runs was so bad that Baseball-Reference valued him as below replacement level in a year in which he batted .267/.398/.529 with a 144 OPS+, 38 homers, and 105 RBI (Fangraphs was kinder and thought he was above replacement, but by less than one win). And that was five years ago, when he was still only 29. It was by far a career worst in the field for him, and probably serves as an outlier due to the volatility of small-sample defensive metrics (he was only minus-11 as an everyday first baseman in 2010), but the point still stands. Dunn is so bad in the field that he is capable of putting up MVP-worthy offensive stats and still grading out as having negative value. So, yes, he's a DH, and when he hits like he's capable of he's a good one.