The Reality of Josh Donaldson

In last night’s Athletics-Rangers extra-inning affair, Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson went 4-for-5 with two doubles. Oakland lost, but it was not Donaldson’s fault that no one was on base when he came up to the plate, or that the As only drove him in once of the four times he was on base himself. Donaldson’s 2013 performance so far has been excellent. Donaldson has been the team’s primary third baseman and has hit .315/.387/.523 (152 wRC+). Voros’ (McCracken’s) Law states that “any major league hitter can hit just about anything in 60 at bats.” Donaldson is beyond that threshold: 168 plate appearances so far this season. A sample of 168 is not exactly huge (to put it mildly), but there might be something to glean from it.

On Monday, Carson mentioned Donaldson as one of the hitters who Steamer Rest-of-the-Season projection had changed most significantly for the positive from his pre-season projections. That in itself is encouraging for As fans, but what can we glean ourselves that might indicate improvement in just a quarter-season of play.

Unsurprisingly, Donaldson’s BABIP is high (.353) — much higher than he had ever shown in the majors, and higher than just any season he had spent in the high minors, and he was in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League for AAA. That in itself might lead us to mostly dismiss his 2013 performance as a fluke. For those who like batted ball approaches to BABIP, Donaldson’s line drive rate, isn’t really any better in 2013 than it was in 2012 when he hit .241/.289/.398 (90 wRC+) over 294 major-league plate appearances for Oakland. But that is not all that has changed.

Donaldson is hitting for more power this season, sporting a .208 ISO. Donaldson did manage nine homers in less than 300 plate appearance last year, and that is probably one of the main things pushing the As to give him the starting spot at third base this year. Looking at his home runs per plate appearance ending in contact (HR/AB-K+SF), though, his rate is almost exactly the same as last year — about four percent. His home runs this year have actually been shorter and slower off the bat than in 2012, according to ESPN Home Run Tracker.

The real driver of Donaldson’s isolated power jump is the increase of doubles and triples on balls in play — he has 14 doubles and one triple already this season in 168 plate appearances, while having 16 doubles last year in almost 300 plate appearances. While that increase is initially promising, extra-base hits on balls in play is about as subject to random fluctuation as BABIP (and the one 2013 triple is also skewing his ISO at the moment — Donaldson is not a triples guy), so we should be cautious before seeing labeling this as improvement for Donaldson this early in the season.

If Donaldson’s improved power and BABIP so far in 2013 are reliant on small samples of things especially subject to random variation, there is another dimension to his game this year that might be a more indicative positive harbinger. Although Donaldson’s excellent observed 2013 performance so far has been based very much on an increase on balls in play and how many bases they go for, that is not all that is going on. Another big factor Donaldson’s impressive performance has been his improved plate discipline. Donaldson took walks in the minors, but never at an amazing rate, and was absolutely dreadful in that respect in the majors before this season at around five percent. This year, he is up over 10 percent.

Donaldson is also striking out in under 16 percent of his plate appearances — much better than one would expect given his prior track record in the majors and minors. While strikeout and walk rates are their own best predictors, the relevant plate discipline statistics also indicate improvement: Donaldson is swinging at fewer pitchers overall than he did last year and fewer outside the zone, too, which supports the better walk rate; he is also making contact at a much better rate, which is why is is striking out less frequently.

This is particularly good news because while, as we have seen, BABIP and extra-base hits per hits in play can fluctuate a great deal, relatively speaking, walk rates correlate quite high among the various peripherals, and strikeout rate correlates highest of all. Although it is still early for all of this, Donaldson’s improvements in avoiding strikeouts and taking walks may be real. Even if Donaldson has not really improved in terms of his power and ability to get hits on balls in play, the walks have their own value, and the improved contact will enable him to not only get more hits, but more extra-base hits (in play and out of the park) even if his raw power has not improved. A hitters can’t hit for extra bases if he doesn’t make contact.

Josh Donaldson is very unlikely to finish the season with a 152 wRC+. He does seem to be a better hitter than in the past, though. Donaldson’s plate discipline has been one of several keys to his success so far this year, and it is the main one to watch to see if that success will continue.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

20 Responses to “The Reality of Josh Donaldson”

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  1. Trevor says:

    Donaldson has started 3 games at catcher this year? I need to speak with Yahoo.

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  2. Sam says:

    Donaldson in AAA last year: .335/.402/.598 in 234 PA

    Donaldson since being called up to the majors to replace Inge last August: .302/.370/.505 in 362 PA (3.8 fWAR).

    These are obviously some selective endpoints, but Donaldson’s improved performance began well before the 2013 season. And I’d would guess it’s more sustainable than typical improvements at this age given that it has coincided with him moving out from behind the plate.

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  3. Raised.eyebrows says:

    Yeah, to second trevor – donaldson has absolutely not started at catcher this year, and in fact hasn’t played it at any level since very early last season. And just a bit of additional context – while i doubt that donaldson will keep hitting THIS well, this isn’t an entirely new development. His line last year is hugely dragged down by the fact that he hit like utter shit during april and may, earning himself a demotion to AAA. Supposedly he worked on his swing (though they always say that) but regardless he was destroying the PCL, and from when he got called back up in early august through the end of the season he put up a .290/.356/.489 line in 178 ABs. Combining that with his performance this year, I’m pretty confident that he’ll be an above average hitter going forward. Not that i know shit, really.

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    • James V says:

      One point of reference – while in the minors, he did rotate between C and 3B fairly often. The River Cats, like many minor league teams (probably based on certain instructions from the A’s but also necessity depending on the lineups), have commonly rotated certain players around a handful of different positions depending on what they can do. Ahh, versatility!

      But he did catch from time to time at least through some point in July prior to being called back up. I was at a game in Tacoma that month that went 18 innings and he caught every one of them.

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  4. Nick O says:

    Re: line drive rate. Irrespective of rate, when Josh Donaldson hits a line drive, it is absolutely crushed (ala Pedroia), so my assumption/hope is that he has a higher batting average on line drives than the typical player and a higher than average BABIP will be sustainable.

    Also, Donaldson hasn’t played catcher at all this year. He started 3 games there last year before being sent down and re-emerging as our every day 3Bman.

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    • Wayne says:

      I’ve noticed that too this year. I’ve looked at Donaldson’s extra base hits on his MLB player page and most of them are extremely hard hit line drives to the left centerfield gap. He’s definitely the type of guy who can maintain a high BABIP.

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  5. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the edit Matt. Very professional of you.

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  6. Tim A says:

    As catchers go he is super valuable having not played an inning. Melvin can PH Jaso or Norris knowing a fluke injury will still leave him with a 3B that can receive. He’s the backup backup catcher.

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  7. TheGrandslamwich says:

    He’s also exciting to watch on defense at third. He may not be on the same level as Longoria or Machado, but he certainly passes the eye test and is above average in the metrics. Not bad for a recently converted catcher.

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    • brendan says:

      yes, appears to be a plus at 3B. probably not as good a hitter as he’s been so far in 2013, but if he can manage a 120 wRC+, he’s still a very valuable player.

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    • Blofkin says:

      And his arm is incredible.

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    • Bab says:

      Totally agree here. His defense has been outstanding. He made a put-out to first from his knees today against the Rangers that was eye-opening.

      If he keeps it up, I’d love to see Donaldson get some AS/GG chatter. He really plays baseball the way you want to watch it be played.

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      • Blofkin says:

        Considering how poorly the entire staff and most of the position players are playing right now, he could quite easily be the A’s rep if he keeps it up another month.

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  8. Justin says:


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  9. Charlie says:

    Donaldson’s success, in large part, has been due to the ability to crush lefties. His wOBA of .522 against lefties can largely be contributed to swinging at 20-60% more of pitches on the inner half of the plate compared to 2012. However, there is absolutely no change in his swinging percentage outside the zone against lefties compared to 2012; although his BB% is up this year against lefties.

    If Donaldson’s swinging percentage has not changed against lefties outside the zone, and his swinging % is actually up, is such a walk rate sustainable against lefties; is such strong contact % sustainable?

    The majority of Donaldson’s plate discipline improvement can be seen against righties, where he is swinging at approximately 20-40% fewer pitches in the zone altogether. That is a positive.

    I agree with you Matt that his plate discipline will be the maint thing to watch, but I’m hesitant to think such success against lefties (particularly his K% and BB%) will continue. And because of this, his overall value will begin to decline.

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    • Blofkin says:

      Why would the contact rate be unsustainable? You’re pulling from a pretty small sample size, and his contact rates and plate discipline across the board look good. He makes contact on pitches swung at outside the zone at a rate way above average, and his swinging st % is down. I don’t see how any of this is unsustainable just because he’s not more selective against lefties. He’s making more contact, which is the important thing here.

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      • Steve says:

        Donaldson is indeed for real. Perhaps Charlie is bitter, being that Donaldson was once owned by Chicago?

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  10. pkdryan13 says:

    Comparing Donaldson this year to last year can produce some misleading hypotheses depending on how the numbers are interpreted. He was a COMPLETELY different player after being sent down following his first stint last season, and the numbers are quite staggering. If you compare his numbers from his second stint last year to his numbers this year, you’d see a bit more consistency and I think the underlying implications of this particular article might be a bit different.

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