Wherever he went, the voices followed. In the batting cage, in the dugout, in the batter's box, the relentless yapping of the Reds' coaches echoed in Adam Dunn's head. "I'm standing at the plate thinking, Where are my hands? Where's this, where's that?" recalls Dunn, the slugging leftfielder whose dreadful batting average and high strikeout rate make him the poster boy for Cincinnati's homer-happy lineup. "Before I know it, the pitch is there and I'm completely out of rhythm."
The 6'6", 240-pound Dunn, an All-Star in 2002, can't say exactly when he began to lose his bearings, though his decline as an effective hitter has been swift. His batting average over the past three seasons has plummeted from .262 to .249 to .215. Two years ago he struck out a team-record 170 times; last season, when he missed 42 games with a left thumb injury, he whiffed 126 times in 116 games. The 24-year-old Dunn has always had power—he belted 19 home runs in his first 66 games in the majors, then hit 26 and 27 the past two seasons—but his potential has yet to be fully tapped in Cincinnati, where he has played under the heavy-handed instruction of six hitting coaches and manager Bob Boone. "In the batting cage you'd see four different guys standing around [ Dunn] giving their opinions," says right-fielder Austin Kearns. "Everyone had a different one."
Dave Miley, who took over for the fired Boone last July, prides himself on letting his coaches work more directly with the players—in contrast to Boone, whom some Reds found overly meddlesome. "With regards to hitting instruction," says new hitting coach Chris Chambliss, "all communication comes through me." Chambliss, the former Yankees first baseman who was New York's hitting coach on four world championship teams from 1996 through 2000, was hired in December and spent the off-season at home in West New York, N.J., watching tapes of hundreds of swings by Cincinnati hitters. He quickly discerned a disturbing trend: Too many players were trying to pull the ball too often. The Reds proved last year that they had pop (they ranked sixth in the NL in homers) but little else. Seemingly entranced by the dinger-friendly wind patterns of Great American Ball Park (the ball leaps out in straightaway left and right), Cincinnati batted a putrid .245 and whiffed an NL-leading 1,326 times, setting a club record for strikeouts in a season for the third straight year.
This spring Chambliss had one clear message for Dunn & Co.: Shorten your swings and use the entire field. Chambliss had hitters start the day with a 15-minute game of pepper to sharpen their bat control. (Last year Dunn went 43 consecutive games without driving in a runner other than himself.) The training routine for Dunn, among others, featured the one-handed short-bat swinging drills used to teach hitters a more compact stroke. Last season the lefthanded-hitting Dunn drove only one of his 17 home runs at Great American to the opposite field. Chambliss believes that if Dunn develops an opposite-field swing, it will keep him from getting rolled over on outside pitches and allow him to put the ball in play more often.
Dunn agrees. "People assume I can't hit for average," says Dunn, who batted .304 in 1,208 minor league at bats. "I've hit for average all my life, until I got up here. It's not because I can't. It's because people have tried to get me to hit more homers. I'll hit even more home runs when I'm hitting the way I can."
Improvement from Dunn is imperative: The offense will have to shoulder the load for a team that's suspect in every other area. Last season Boone and Miley used 29 pitchers—17 of them starters—who combined for the second-worst ERA in the NL. Cincinnati's major off-season addition to the ragtag staff was righthander Corey Lidle, who had a 5.75 ERA in 31 starts with the Blue Jays. The Reds' fielding was just as ugly, as they allowed 68 unearned runs, fourth most in the league. "We've got our work cut out for ourselves in a lot of areas, but it's obvious that this offense, if healthy, can score lots of runs," says Miley, who's counting on productive seasons from Kearns and centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who reported to spring in good health after being injured for much of last season. "Still, if our hitting fails, we're in trouble."
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