First let me qualify this by saying, like most Nationals fans, I hope Adam Dunn develops to become a quality, or even replacement level first basemen. But after the slugging outfielder took a 67 game hack at first base and posted a UZR/150 of -25, many are skeptical if the 30-year-old can make the change.
That's not to say that Dunn hasn't put forth the effort. He has trained this offseason in Jiu-Jitsu (could you imagine being his sparring partner?) in hopes of improving his hand-eye coordination and agility. He has also expressed that he truly enjoys playing defense and that he wants to get better, which you can take however you want. Either way the real question is, what are the odds that Adam Dunn can actually develop into a quality first basemen?
To figure this out I looked at all players who registered over 100 games in a season at first base between the years of 2002 and 2009 who had also registered 100 games in a season in the outfield earlier in their. What I wanted to gauge was how effectively players in the past have adapted defensively from being full-time outfielders to full-time first basemen. I looked at the years 2002-09 due to the limitations of UZR fielding metrics.
What I found was that only 12 players had successfully moved from a fulltime outfielder to a fulltime first baseman, completing at least one season at each position. Among them were Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Rafael Palmeiro, Wil Cordero, Shawn Green, Ryan Klesko, Jeff Conine, Robert Fick, Darin Erstad, Richie Sexon, Kevin Millar and Russell Branyan.
In that group three players, Palmeiro, Erstad, and Pujols, went on to win a Gold Glove at first base. Pujols was already considered a plus-fielder when he made the switch and had infield experience as a former third-baseman. Rafael Palmeiro is a bit of an outlier here because he only played one full season in the outfield and that was in 1988, almost 10 years before he won his Gold Glove at first. Erstad, who despite the flack he receives from many, was actually a very gifted defender at every position he played, posting a career UZR/150 of 21.2 in the outfield and 8.7 at first.
Two others, Robert Fick and Shawn Green, were also able to convert outfield experience into infield success. Green, a former Gold Glove winner in the outfield posted a career UZR/150 of 3.7 at first base, and Fick, a former catcher posted an 8.0 UZR/150. Once again both these players had a defensive track record to prove they were adept to defense, and Fick, as a former catcher, had experience picking balls out of the dirt and playing in the infield.
Three of the players in the group , Klesko, Branyan, and Berkman went on to become average first basemen, posting a UZR/150 between zero and two. Branyan, a former third baseman, once again had experience playing infield, so the transition likely wasn't as difficult. Berkman had no infield experience but earlier in his career was considered a plus outfielder when he came up, and Klesko was a fleet footed athlete who could move around the bag well.
Four of the players in the group went on to post a career UZR/150 below zero. They were Richie Sexon, Kevin Millar, Wil Cordero, and Jeff Conine. Unfortunately for Dunn, he likely has more in common with the players in this group. Most of these players were considered large, slower men who hit for power and never really fielded their positions well. The change to first for these players, like with Dunn, was to keep their bat in the line-up while minimizing their defensive liability.
A sweeping look at the list of 12 players shows that those who were successful at moving to first base had at least one of two things in common. They either had infield experience, meaning that moving hundreds of feet closer to the plate wasn't a huge adjustment for them, or they had a great defensive track record, meaning they had proven to be adept to using their glove. Unfortunately for the Nationals, Dunn fits niether of those bills.
It's very possible that with the sluggers size and age, he's just too big and old to learn a position that, quite honestly, requires the most flexibility of any position. If Dunn has a poor track record of reading and chasing down fly balls, won't it be just as hard for him to learn to read a throw that is traveling across the infield at 90 MPH, and know just where to put his glove so he can pick it? Wont it be hard for him to switch from holding a runner on to being in a defensive position to field a ball in mere seconds? What about charging the plate on a bunt? All of these things are harder to do than reading a fly ball.
It will be a difficult road for Dunn, but he has expressed that he has the desire to improve, and it appears genuine. If he can do it, he will be shutting a lot of people up, including this writer, but I wouldn't count on it happening.