Friday July 1st, 2011

The strange decline of Adam Dunn continues. The White Sox have tried a team psychologist, minor league pitchers flown in to throw game speed practice pitches to him and five different spots in the batting order, and Dunn still can't hit. His June (.136) was the worst month of a nightmare season.

Dunn is hitting .019 against lefthanders, .075 with two strikes, .126 at home, .135 after the sixth inning and .171 overall.

Dunn, 31, seems too young to be finished. But the guy who never has played for a playoff team, has the kind of big body that doesn't age well and has little interest in the mechanics of hitting has reacted poorly to being put in the spotlight as a marquee free agent who signed with a big-market club. He is a "feel" hitter who has lost his feel -- probably by trying too hard to justify the signing -- and hitting coach Greg Walker can't help him much because Dunn is not a classic student of hitting.

Dunn's problems -- the mechanical ones caused by the tension in his swing and his lack of confidence -- go back to the mental side of the game. And that got me wondering: just how difficult can it be to change teams? Think of it as a bigger, higher-stakes version of the discomfort often caused by changing schools as a child.

"It takes time to settle into an environment and live up to a contract," said one GM, "and everybody does it differently. Last year Adrian Beltre was terrible for a month (0 home runs in 25 games) and became one of the better players in the league for the last five. It takes time, but it's different for everyone."

Take a look at this: the 10 worst hitters in baseball this year through Wednesday with at least 230 plate appearances. Note that six of the 10 worst hitters changed teams this year, with all but one (Jack Hannahan) doing so in high profile fashion. A seventh, Chone Figgins, still hasn't recovered from his switch last year.

1. Adam Dunn, White Sox* .173 2. Dan Uggla, Braves* .178 3. Chone Figgins, Mariners .186 4. Juan Uribe, Dodgers* .206 5. Ryan Raburn, Tigers .207 6. Kelly Johnson, Diamondbacks .210 7. John Buck, Marlins* .213 8. Jack Hannahan, Indians* .215 T-9. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins .216 T-9. Vernon Wells, Angels * .216 * Changed teams in 2011

Look no further than Detroit to understand how relief pitching is so unpredictable -- and rarely worth multi-year investments. The Tigers spent $16.5 million over three years on Joaquin Benoit, and he can't get hitters out (4.75 ERA). And they picked up 150-pound Al Albuquerque, a guy who had bounced from the Cubs to the Rockies, on a minor-league deal and he is having a historically great season.

When the red-hot Mets tagged him for three runs this week, it snapped a 13-game, 14-inning, five-week scoreless streak for Albuquerque. Still, the dude with one of the most wicked sliders in the game (he throws it 60 percent of his pitches) has allowed only one extra-base hit to 126 batters faced this year.

Albuquerque has struck out 37 percent of the batters he has faced. He has held hitters to a .157 slugging percentage. Over the past 50 years, only four pitchers have held hitters to a slugging percentage below .200 over at least 60 innings: Eric Gagne (.176 in 2003), Hong-Chih Kuo (.192 in 2010), Carlos Marmol (.199 in 2010) and Jeff Nelson (.199 in 2001).

Just a reminder: five of the seven most expensive free agent relievers who changed teams last winter have been busts halfway through the first year of their contracts: Rafael Soriano, Benoit, Matt Guerrier, Bobby Jenks and Brian Fuentes.

What a Saturday is to a golf tournament (moving day), July is to the baseball season. It's the one month that forces clubs to decide whether they are playoff worthy or not -- to determine whether they are buyers or sellers. As such, you are at the mercy of the schedule this time of year. Here's a look at three teams with interesting schedule issues this month:

New York Mets. Good luck. Three of their next four series are against first-place teams: the Yankees, Giants and Phillies. They play 17 of their 28 games this month against winning teams. They have one home game against a losing team the entire month.

Chicago White Sox. Time to make a move. Of their next 22 games, the Sox play nine against the teams they are chasing (Indians and Tigers) and the other 13 against losing teams (Cubs, Royals and Twins).

Tampa Bay Rays. Mixed bag. The Rays do have what could be a defining stretch of 11 straight games against the Yankees and Red Sox. But they do have the All-Star break inside that stretch, and they do play 20 consecutive games after it against losing teams (Royals, A's, Mariners and Blue Jays).

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