Author Archive

Josh Donaldson: Changes in Approach and Mechanics

A short note: For those inclined only to GIFery, you can skip to the bottom.

The 2014 Oakland Athletics got taken out in the soul-crushing Russian roulette that was the Wild Card play-in game. The Billy Beane gambles didn’t pay off. On top of that, even though it rained on their parade, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series.

All is not lost for the A’s, however.

There are other great articles that go over the outlook for next year’s Athletics team in terms of payroll and contracts. Today, we’re going to squarely focus on the on-field performance of only one of those pieces – someone who has evolved into one of the best overall position players in the game.

Let’s dive into Josh Donaldson’s trends in the offensive arena, and attempt to find meaning in those trends for his performance in 2015 and beyond.

Josh Donaldson figured it out in the summer of 2012: after struggling through most of the early part of that year, he was sent down to AAA in mid-June, getting the call back up to the majors on August 14th. He batted .290/.356/.489 the rest of the way with 19 extra base hits, led the A’s to an unlikely division championship, and gave us a snapshot of the player we now expect him to be.

At his best, Donaldson is a middle of the order power bat that can hit to all fields and draws walks at an above average clip. Whether coincidentally or not, his overall plate approach fits that of the A’s organization: work into deep counts, get a good pitch to drive, and swing hard. He’s shown some subtle differences in rate statistics during the two highly successful years since his breakout, and that’s what we’re mainly going to look at before moving on to a discussion about his specific hitting mechanics.

One of the main differences between Donaldson’s 2013 and 2014 was his batted ball profile in regard to line drives and fly balls. At surface level, the continued evolution of Donaldson’s batted ball profile since his breakout in August of 2012 mirrors the Athletics’ high OBP/home run tendencies. As we’ll see later on with the mechanics portion of the article, there’s more here than meets the eye. However, to begin with, let’s look at his line drive and flyball tendencies.

Here we have Line Drives per Ball In Play for Donaldson in 2013 and 2014:


And here we have a breakdown of his Fly Balls per Ball In Play:


It’s not too difficult to tell what’s happened during the majority of Donaldson’s effectiveness at the major league level: he’s hit more fly balls and less line drives against fastballs over time. The obvious answer to why this has happened is that Donaldson could simply have changed his approach to try to elevate hard pitches for homeruns in 2014. His overall line drive rate fell along with his batting average and Batting Average on Balls In Play in 2014 as well, as fly balls don’t always (or even usually) go for homeruns, and also result in outs more often than line drives. Donaldson’s groundball rate stayed almost exactly the same between the two years.

His counting stats reflect this change in batted ball profile, as he shifted a few 2013 doubles to home runs in 2014. Let’s compare his stats from the past two years. Donaldson played in the same number of games in each of the past two years, with a few more plate appearances in 2014:


There isn’t a major difference in his strikeout and walk rates – strikeout rates are up for almost everyone, so proclaiming Donaldson’s slight increase a true trend has its problems. As we’ve seen, the strikezone expanded this year by a large degree, something that wasn’t lost on the All Star third baseman.

Another element in this comparison that we should keep in mind is the damage on his statistics wrought by his slump of over a month in June of 2014. It was one of the worst months of Donaldson’s career, as he hit .181 with a 4.5% walk rate, 6.0% line drive rate, and hit grounders 65.1% of the time (as a reminder, league average is around 44%). He would overcompensate his swing in July, causing a 52% flyball rate (league avg. = 36%), but his walks and power production came back to almost normal levels. As it is, we’re left to wonder what his 2014 could have looked like if not for the extended slump.

Given the changes in batted ball profile and rate statistics between 2013 and 2014, we need to go deeper into causation. Did Donaldson simply change his approach to hit more fly balls? Was this an unintended result of a change in his mechanics?

Let’s find out.

To help me with the technical specifics of Donaldson’s swing, I’ve brought in Jerry Brewer, a great hitting instructor and general swing mechanics wizard from the Bay Area. He runs East Bay Hitting Instruction, and posts great in-depth breakdowns of swing mechanics over at Athletics Nation. We talked about a few different topics on Donaldson’s swing over the past week.

Owen Watson: Hey Jerry! Thanks for lending your expertise to this – I’m a relative newcomer to the world of swing mechanics and it’s always great to talk to someone who really knows the subject. Can you briefly explain the basic mechanics of hitting, so we can get a baseline understanding of the subject?

Jerry Brewer: The goal of the swing is to put the bat behind the ball with speed on the bat. Pretty simple. Elements of a “good” swing include proper body position, movement sequencing, timing, consistency, and execution. These are the main things I look for when grading someone’s swing:

1) Swing time: how long it takes a player to start their swing to contact with the ball.

2) Swing path: the path the bat travels to meet the ball.

3) Finally, I look for body position as the hitter is completing the stride, which is where you can get a sense of whether the player can make adjustments to pitch location and speed. Donaldson is fantastic here.

OW: Great, so what are the main characteristics of Donaldson’s swing – how is he different from other hitters, and what does he do well/not so well?

JB: Donaldson’s swing in a word: athletic. The baseball swing is just a sequence of movements, and he moves his body optimally. What he does well: his front side mechanics. His rear mechanics are really good too, but his front side is incredible. In my opinion, it is what allows him to be such an all-fields hitter. The one knock could be his path to the ball is an inch or two long. But, to quote myself, “that’s like pointing out a scratched license plate on a Ferrari.”

OW: Donaldson is in many ways a classic poster boy for the A’s patience/power combo. Is his power increase from 2013 to 2014 a result of the coaching of the A’s offensive approach under (former) hitting coach Chili Davis?

JB: It’s hard to say how much influence Davis had on Donaldson’s approach. My guess is very little. Donaldson was a high walk/high power guy in the minors and it just took some time to gel in the show. I am of the mindset that a person’s approach is pretty ingrained and hard to coach. As for the power, Donaldson came into spring training in 2014 with a pretty pronounced bat tip (how far forward the bat head is brought during swing loading) toward the opposing dugout. Think of it like a bigger backswing. That told me right then that he was going for more power.

OW: How do we explain the increase in flyball rate, then? When I look at the jump in his flyball tendency in 2014 as opposed to 2013, one explanation is that it was an intentional attempt to try to elevate the ball for more power.

JB: The flyball tendency is a little difficult to explain on swing mechanics alone. For example, he got the bat tip completely out of control in June and still hit only 30% flyballs. My best guess is that the excessive bat tip caused him to be just a hair late on fastballs, sending more balls in the air. We saw this in his opposite field hitting: in 2013 his flyball rate to the opposite field was 52%, but in 2014 it went up to 62%.

I didn’t see a change in loft in his swing in 2014, it’s just a little more difficult to put the bat on the ball consistently with the aggressive bat tip. When he did hit the ball well, it travelled, as his HR/FB was way higher in the first half when he was tipping, but he had more mishits than in 2013.

Basically, Donaldson went Javier Baez for awhile.

OW: When I watch him, he seems like he has an entrenched timing mechanism with the leg kick. How does that function in his mechanics? I’ve always wondered whether it could be a cause for slumps if it gets mistimed.

JB: The leg kick is really secondary. The more important thing is Donaldson now has a lot more of a slower, longer movement with the bat before launching the swing. Most guys who do this (Ortiz, Bautista, Hanley Ramirez) go to a leg kick so the lower body is doing something while the upper body is doing something. I call this matching. On the other end of the spectrum are guys who don’t do much with the bat pre-launch, so their lower bodies are more quiet (Tulo, Utley, Brandon Moss). The positives of the bigger movements are that it can allow the player to get to the position they need. Stride type is really personal based on approach, habits, and anatomy.

Looking at Donaldson’s pre-leg lift swings, the high leg kick gives him time to open his front leg more, which is something he talked to me about. The negatives of the leg kick are that it simply may not be the right fit for a player based on the above factors. It takes some serious athleticism to be consistent with a swing like that.

OW: Let’s talk about that consistency. I’ve been wondering about the big slump he had in June when he hit .181 with just four extra base hits over the entire month, carrying the slump well into July. What happened to cause that?

JB: Mechanics wise, I think the excessive bat tip caught up with him, either from the grind of the season or taking a couple pitches off the hands/forearms in June and July. In late July he quieted down the bat tip and started rolling. If he goes back to the excessive bat tip, then yeah, he could fall into a slump. I think and hope that he’s got that figured out.

OW: What do you see as his ceiling, then? If he figures out the bat tipping and can cut down on extended slumps, where will that put him?

JB: It’s very high. The batting average is the big question. We were a little spoiled in 2013 when he hit .301. That was propped up by a ridiculous .448 average on balls hit the other way…

OW: Right, and a Batting Average on Balls In Play of .333.

JB: That is and was completely unsustainable. But I think he fits in somewhere between .300 and last year’s .255 in regard to the average. Last year he kind of got robbed on some hard hit balls, when he hit 131 of them and his average on those balls in play was 54 points under the league norm. Some of that is the Coliseum being a pitcher’s park, obviously. Also, he got rung up 10 more times on looking strike threes in 2014 than in 2013, so that could be an area of improvement. I would probably say his ceiling is around .277 with 27 HRs.

OW: Not bad for a third baseman with that kind of defensive prowess, too. Thanks a lot for your time, Jerry! This has been really informative. Here’s to spring training…


After the discussion with Jerry, it became apparent that Donaldson’s change in mechanics toward a more aggressive bat tip could be a big reason behind the differences in batted ball profile between 2013 and 2014. I decided to look at some instances of tape over the past two years to see when he was going with a more controlled approach as opposed to a more aggressive one. While 2013 showed a very consistent approach throughout the entire year, 2014 didn’t have as much of a set pattern as I once thought. Let’s investigate.

Here we have Donaldson’s mechanics during almost all of 2013 – at the point of swing loading (just before the stride starts toward the pitcher when the balance of weight is on the back foot), Donaldson’s bat is almost perpendicular to the ground, and his stride forward is consistent and low. Here he is hitting an inside-out double to right center in mid-September of 2013:


Bat tipping is minimal here, allowing Donaldson to stay short enough from swing loading to contact to hit a 94 MPH fastball on the inside part of the plate into the right centerfield gap. Now let’s look at a swing from almost exactly a year later, in mid-August of 2014:


Watching it a few times, it’s clear this is a highly aggressive swing. The leg kick is slightly higher than it was in 2013, and the bat movement is noticeably different. Instead of being almost perpendicular to the ground, the bat points strongly toward the opposing dugout at swing loading, whipping around to generate as much power as possible. One reason this swing could be so aggressive is that Bruce Chen was on the mound, and Donaldson could gear up on a slow fastball in a 1-0 count. Instead, he got an 83 MPH slider that didn’t slide, and stayed back on it enough to hit it 425 feet over the centerfield fence.

Looking at tape of early July 2014 following the terrible slump, it’s apparent that Donaldson all but ditched the aggressive bat tip, probably in order to make more consistent contact. Yet, with the example above during August, it was back in a major way.

This begs the question: is the aggressive bat tipping something that Donaldson turns on situationally, such as a 3-1 count? Or is this just noise, and part of the tweaking and maturation process that a relatively new major leaguer goes through?

The answer to that question may be for another time, but a cursory examination may support the situational hypothesis. Looking back through a few examples, the bat tip does change from situation to situation in a short span of time. Just three days before the hyper-aggressive swing against Bruce Chen, Donaldson showed almost no bat tipping on an RBI single with two out and the bases loaded versus the Twins. In mid-July, three weeks earlier than that, he showed very aggressive tipping on a three run walkoff home run against the Orioles. This could certainly be random, or noise, or something he doesn’t know he’s doing.

Or maybe, as Jerry says, Donaldson just wants to go a little Javier Baez sometimes.


Special thanks to Jerry Brewer, who can be found at East Bay Hitting Instruction and on Twitter @JerryBrewerEBHI. All graphs are Brooks Baseball.

How Eric Sogard Made History

Last Saturday’s Athletics vs. Twins game turned out just about as everyone expected, with Oakland winning the game 9-4 in what was a noncompetitive contest after the 5th inning. Minnesota chose to debut their #8 prospect, starting pitcher Trevor May, in a road game during a lost season against a team with the best run differential in the majors. They did this, one can only suspect, because they are the Minnesota Twins. From experience we may infer the answer to the question “what happens when we give a young man his debut against a pitching meat grinder?”, and so it was that Trevor May struggled, and struggled mightily. May lasted only two innings, gave up four earned runs, walked seven batters, and did not record a single strikeout. This is strange for many reasons, the main ones being that Minnesota is a pitch-to-contact team in its approach, and because no one has walked at least seven batters and not struck anyone out in their debut since Ricky Romero for the Blue Jays in August of 2012.

However, we’re not here to talk exclusively about Trevor May, even though his wild performance on Saturday night partially allowed this article’s existence. We’re here to talk about Eric Sogard, who quietly had a strangely historic night during an otherwise fairly pedestrian Oakland win. Eric Sogard is known, if he is truly known outside of the Oakland fan base, for two things: coming in second during this past off-season’s “Face of MLB” contest, and for his prowess with the glove.

Sogard doesn’t really hit: he’s currently slashing .216/.305/.271, and he hit his first home run of the year last week, a 349-foot missile down the right field line. Eric Sogard is one of those major leaguers who is in the league because he does one thing very well, and because he plays for a team that has the luxury of being able to carry a player whose value is determined almost entirely by defense. Make no mistake, Eric Sogard is a very good defensive second baseman: he has a UZR/150 of 8.5 that puts him 8th among active 2B this year with a minimum of 500 innings played. He is not, however, great with the bat.

That being said, let’s look at Eric Sogard’s batting line from Saturday night against the Twins, when he batted in the 9th position:

0-1, 1 R, 4 BBs, 1 SB

Eric Sogard walked four times while batting in the 9th position in the lineup on Saturday night. Take a moment to let that fact sink in, because it’s crazy. How rare is it for a batter in the 9th position in the lineup to walk four times? Since 1914, it has only happened 14 times including Sogard this past weekend. He’s the first member of the Oakland Athletics to ever do it. Only two other players since 1914 have accomplished this and also stolen a base in the same game: Desi Relaford (2002) & Brady Anderson (1990). On top of all of that, Sogard also made an error – because in a game when weird things are happening to a defensive second baseman, of course he did. He’s now the only player in baseball history to have walked four times in the 9th spot, stolen a base, and made an error in the same game. That’s reaching a little bit, but hey, baseball history!

Just pointing out the rarity of this phenomenon isn’t really interesting enough, though. Let’s go a little deeper. Specifically, let’s ask ourselves this question: “how many pitches did Eric Sogard ‘get to hit’ on Saturday night?” By “get to hit” I mean pitches in the strike zone that have a high likelihood of good contact – i.e., not “pitcher’s pitches” on the corner low and away or nasty breaking pitches located perfectly. Yes, this is subjective, as every hitter is different in their preference of locations to swing at and hit thrown pitches, but we’re more generally going to look at pitches that were over the plate and hittable. We know the answer to this question isn’t going to be a lot of pitches, given the four walks. However, for a light-hitting second baseman batting in the 9th spot, who should expect to be challenged over the plate in almost every at-bat, it’s a fun question to ask. It also allows us to look at some GIFs.

I’ve gone ahead and split up every at-bat that Eric Sogard had on Saturday into different GIFs and overlaid them with circles: green for balls and red for strikes. Sogard saw 22 pitches on Saturday, which tied him for the team lead with Derek Norris. Let’s dig in.

1st AB, 2nd inning – 2 out, none on, P Trevor May:


Sogard saw four pitches, all four of which were balls. Only the first pitch of the at-bat was close to in the strike zone, and Sogard was either taking all the way or correctly identified the pitch as a changeup and laid off.

Pitches to hit tally: 0

2nd AB, 3rd inning, 1 out, 1 on: P Samuel Deduno:


This was the biggest battle of the game for our nerd power-harnessing second baseman, as he saw seven pitches and went to a full count. The 2-0 strike might have been the most hittable pitch Sogard saw all night, even though it was low in the zone and breaking slightly toward the outer half of the plate. The 3-1 pitch, called a strike, probably could’ve been called either way, and Sogard pulled a 3-2 liner foul off of an inside fastball off the plate before taking his second walk.

Pitches to hit tally: 1

3rd AB, 5th inning, 1 out, none on: P Samuel Deduno:


Deduno had just given up a two run homer to Stephen Vogt in the previous at-bat, so he might’ve been a little rattled when facing our young hero. Sogard walked on five pitches, with the 1-0 high fastball strike the best pitch to hit. However, when you’ve already walked twice, why start swinging now?

Pitches to hit tally: 2

4th AB, 6th inning, 2 out, 1 on: P Ryan Pressly:


Nothing to swing at. The two low and away pitches were the closest to strikes, but they were also easy takes after two pitches high and outside that weren’t close. Four walks achieved.

Pitches to hit tally: 2

5th AB, 8th inning, 2 out, 1 on: P Anthony Swarzak:


At last Eric Sogard is bested. After a high and outside pitch was taken for a ball, allowing us to dream of the first-ever five walk night out of a hitter in the 9th spot, Sogard swung at a nasty low and away pitch on the corner and meekly chopped out to the pitcher. Not even Sogard’s blazing speed could rescue him this time. Unfortunately, that was not a pitch to hit/swing at.

Alas, poor Sogard, we knew him well.

Final pitches to hit tally: 2

To wrap it all up, here we have a GIF of all of the pitches Sogard saw on Saturday (from the catcher’s perspective). I’m viewing the strike zone that was generated by the system with a healthy bit of skepticism, as it’s not adjusted for the batter or the umpire. Still, it gives us a concrete idea of how many pitches Sogard saw that were worth swinging at:


The answer is two or three at most, which is insane, because the Minnesota Twins have the fifth-lowest BB/9 in the majors, and Eric Sogard is hitting around .215 with one home run.

Baseball is great because Giancarlo Stanton hits majestic 500 foot moon shots, but it’s also great because guys who are 5′ 10″ (on a good day) defensive specialists who platoon at second base draw four walks against a team that is known for pitching to contact. Players like Eric Sogard aren’t barred from the history books, even though they’re often overlooked in favor of the mashers chasing home run titles; they simply make their history in a very different and sometimes more interesting way. Maybe we have to dig for it a little. Or maybe Eric Sogard just needs to not swing for a whole game and let the stars align.

This post is dedicated to my good friend Adam Sax, who is nice enough to help me out with the deep stats (and the last GIF) and is the biggest Sogard fan I know.

Sonny Gray, Perfecting What Works

Tip: Click on any acronyms for an explanation in the FanGraphs glossary of terms.

With his final turn in the rotation for July completed, we’ve now had almost exactly one full year of Sonny Gray – one year of the 24-year-old starting pitcher, the up-and-coming staff ace, the dueler of Playoff Verlanders. In that year, we’ve seen him do some great things, like going eight innings with nine Ks and no runs against the Tigers in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS. We’ve also seen MLB Fan Cave forcing him to prank New Yorkers as a result of some unknown fine print embedded in his rookie contract. Above all else, the one thing we’ve always known is that Sonny Gray has a really good curveball. Let’s take a look at it for all of its 12 to 6, 80-MPH Uncle Charlie glory, from a game against the Astros in August of last year:


How good is his curveball? He has never given up a home run off of the pitch, with the only extra-base hits against the curve in his career being four doubles. In the past calendar year, Sonny Gray has saved more runs with his curveball than any other pitcher in baseball, and is behind only Corey Kluber and Yu Darvish in Runs Saved/100 curveballs. Having watched Kluber a lot, I suspect his slider/slurve is actually being classified as a curveball; I think it looks like a slider, but PITCHf/x doesn’t, so I will defer to the all-knowing pitch computer. Regardless, with the metrics we’re about to examine, Sonny Gray has one of the best curveballs in the game. What we’re going to focus on specifically are the advances in his curve’s effectiveness, spurred on by an adjustment in the way he throws the pitch.

To start, let’s take a look at the top-15 starters by wCB and wCB/C for the past calendar year:


As stated before, Gray is at the top in both of these categories. We should put a little more stock into wCB/C, as it normalizes all pitchers to runs saved per 100 pitches, taking away the advantage that one player might have due to throwing a certain pitch more frequently than another player. This is important for what we’re looking at, because Sonny Gray throws a lot of curveballs. How frequently does he throw curveballs? Here are the leaders for percentage of curveballs thrown over the last calendar year:

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 9.03.14 PM

The words “second only to Scott Feldman” don’t come up very often, but here they are. Gray throws his curveball a ton. Not only has he always leaned on the curve as a major weapon in his arsenal, but he has actually increased his number of curves thrown since he came into the league every month except for May (when he maintained his % thrown) and June of this year, when he seemed to temporarily lose a feel for the pitch and threw more changeups. However, his first start of July had Gray saying this after holding Toronto to one run over seven innings:

“That was the idea, to really get (it) going again,” Gray said of the curveball. “I think the last five or six starts it’s been OK, but it hasn’t been a big factor. We did some things a little different this week and I was able to find that again.”

Over the last 30 days, Gray has thrown the curveball more than ever, up to over 32% for the month. Not only that, he has found more effectiveness in the pitch, with his whiff % on the curve up to a career-best 19.2% during July. There’s also reason to believe that this isn’t simply a good month for Sonny Gray’s curveball – what we are now seeing is the fruition of a change of approach with the way he throws the pitch that has been coming for some time now. Let’s take a look.

Here we have the release speed of Sonny Gray’s curveball for every start since he was called up:


He’s throwing the curve harder than he ever has, adding over three miles per hour since he started pitching in the majors. That’s not a small change. On top of the speed increase, he’s cut about 2.5 inches of vertical movement off his curve between his first start in the majors and now:


Finally, he’s added more three-dimensional depth to his curve in the form of a top-3 best horizontal movement over the past calendar year. Only Corey Kluber and Charlie Morton have had better horizontal movement on their curves in that time period.

Add all of that up, and we have this 84-MPH curve from his last start against the Orioles:


It now looks more like a slurve, with its high release speed and nasty late break away from right-handed hitters. As Eno Sarris included in his great article from October of last year, Gray said he “adds and subtracts” with the same grip on his curve to move between the 12-to-6 and slurve (which is sometimes classified as a slider) varieties. However, it seems as if he has leaned more toward the slurve option as time has gone on.

One question that arises out of this is “why throw the slurve more?”

Given his whiff % on the curve has increased as he has added velocity, I’d say that fact alone has supported the move to the slurve over the 12-to-6. However, there’s another potential reason that isn’t strictly rooted in statistics, and could be more about what goes into an elite pitching approach: by increasing his arm speed and flattening out the vertical movement of his curve, Gray can further deceive batters into thinking he’s throwing hard pitches before the bottom drops out. His struggles to find consistency with the changeup are well documented, so why shouldn’t he adjust his best breaking pitch to better fool hitters for whiffs and weak contact? As we’ve seen with Yu Darvish, the pinnacle of an ace approach may be one that includes a “great convergence” of arm slots and release points, in which every pitch looks hard until it’s not, or until it is.

Gray’s horizontal release points for all of his pitches are closer to one another than they ever have been during his major league career. Not surprisingly, his curveball and fastball were released on average at the almost identical horizontal point during his May and July starts, when he posted career-best whiff rates on his curveball (18.6% & 19.2%, respectively). June was an aberration, as Gray seemed to lose his release point in general and was tinkering with his delivery, leaning more on the changeup:


Sonny Gray has work to do on parts of his game before he takes the next step into the true elite of starting pitchers. His walk rate has actually increased this year to 8.5%, owing mostly to a lack of fastball command in deep counts, and his changeup is still very much a work in progress as a third pitch. However, his adoption of the hard curve and syncing of arm angles is a positive step toward dominance, and is a sign that he knows what works; he’s now perfecting it.

And now, my first go at a DShep Darvish-like GIF of Sonny Gray’s 12-to-6 curve from last August along with his harder slurve from his last start to compare:










Josh Donaldson vs. the Elite

Tip: Don’t understand an acronym? Just click on it and it will take you to the corresponding FanGraphs glossary of terms.

Watching the final game of the Yankees – A’s series last week, which featured one of the game’s finest pitchers in Masahiro Tanaka, I had a thought during Josh Donaldson’s final at-bat against the Japanese hurler. After he struck out to finish 0-3 against Tanaka, my mind traveled back to the ALDS game 5s of the past two years. It’s no secret the A’s crashed out against a dominant Verlander in both 2012 & 2013, just like it’s no secret that Josh Donaldson was almost entirely absent in both of those very important games: 1-7, 0 BB, 3 K (with all 3 of those Ks coming in 2013′s game 5). 7 at-bats is obviously an incredibly small sample size, especially for an up-and-coming player getting his first taste of the postseason. However, for what Donaldson means to the A’s, there were certainly quiet rumblings of disappointment among the fan base.

Verlander is very good; it seems he’s especially good in high leverage situations when his team needs him. Josh Donaldson is also very good, posting 7.7 WAR last year in 158 games. This year, Donaldson has been even better, posting 3.4 WAR through just 62 games and asserting himself in the conversation of the best overall players in baseball. A sizable portion of that WAR comes from the plus defense he plays, but his bat is what he’s known for: since getting called up from the minors on August 14th, 2012 (the point at which his consensus “breakout” started), he’s batted .291/.377/.509 with a wRC+ of 148 (which means that Donaldson has created 48% more runs than a league average player). Only one player has higher WAR in 2013 and 2014 combined (Mike Trout), and only nine other players have higher wRC+. Josh Donaldson is an elite defensive and offensive player by many metrics.

After watching Donaldson’s at-bats against Tanaka, I started wondering how he fares against other elite pitchers in the game, having an unproven hunch he might struggle against them. We know that most everyone struggles against elite pitching, as that is generally the very definition of elite pitching; however, there’s the larger question of just how much impact elite pitching has on hitting statistics, and how elite hitters fare against elite pitching. One might assume that elite hitters are better able to succeed against elite pitching. Looking at Donaldson’s statistics, you wouldn’t think that is the case.

Pulling data from the start of the 2013 season, I’ve identified some of the “elite” pitching that Donaldson has gone up against. I’ve tried to identify pitchers he has faced most often in terms of plate appearances – fortunately (for our sake at least), those pitchers he’s seen most often are also elite arms in his division, like Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, and Hisashi Iwakuma. All pitchers on this list are ranked in the top 15 for xFIP for 2013-2014 (minimum 160 innings pitched) with the exception of Verlander (77th) & Lester (41st). I’ve included them as their FIP rankings are in the top 40, and because I’ve already used Verlander as a benchmark above. Here are Donaldson’s statistics for 2013 & 2014 against some of the best arms in the game, with his total statistics overall in the final line for reference:


These figures don’t include the 2012 and 2013 postseason series against the Tigers, which actually helps Donaldson’s case. However, let’s get the small sample size disclaimer out of the way before we continue. 113 plate appearances is about a month’s worth of full-time hitting statistics, which is not a tremendous sample to draw from, but not insubstantial either. What’s clear from these numbers is that Donaldson really struggles against elite arms, posting awful strikeout and walk rates and severely depressed average, on base, and power numbers (just 7 extra base hits in 104 at-bats).

One larger question we have to answer is whether Donaldson’s drop in production vs. elite pitching is congruent with the standard drop of production any hitter would expect when going up against this level of competition. To find that out, I combined all of the batting-against statistics for these 12 pitchers for all of 2013 & 2014, a total of 12,534 plate appearances, which gives us a “league average” line vs. these pitchers. The findings? These elite arms are really good. Big surprise, right? In fact, the league strikeout and walk rates against these pitchers is very close to Donaldson’s rates, with the walk rate exactly the same. Here are Donaldson’s numbers vs. the elite pitchers, his overall numbers vs. all competition, and then the league average line vs. the elite arms:


Even though we’re looking at the best pitchers in baseball, these statistics were still a bit surprising to me, as these league-wide walk and strikeout rates are abysmal from a hitter’s perspective. How does Donaldson’s slash line compare to the league average? Again, let’s take a look:


We know that Donaldson’s poor BB and K rates fit tidily within the standards of the league line, as seen in the first graph, but his slash lines tell us that he’s been far worse than the rest of the league against these elite pitchers in the limited plate appearances we’re looking at. Shouldn’t we expect a player of his offensive caliber to fare better than league average against this level of competition?

The answer is not necessarily. Donaldson’s approach at the plate has a large bearing on the fact that he struggles against elite pitching. He is not a contact hitter, posting below average marks in swinging strike percentage, contact percentage, and Z-Contact percentage. In fact, he has changed his approach over the past calendar year specifically to try to hit more home runs, resulting in an almost 5% spike in his strikeout rate from 2013 to 2014 (16.5% to 21.1%), but also increasing his home run per fly ball rate by almost 7 points to 17.3%, an elite mark for someone who plays half of their games in one of the most pitching friendly ballparks in baseball. Coupled with an increase in his walk rate, Donaldson’s run creation output has benefited from Chili Davis’ hitting instruction, sitting on pitches he is more likely to drive and swinging hard at the expense of a lower average and higher strikeout rate. Donaldson batted .301 in 2013 with an inflated BABIP (.333), but with his change of approach, he projects somewhere in the .270 range moving forward.

Donaldson is the profile of a hitter that may be more apt to struggle against the elite pitching in the league due to the simple fact that elite pitchers tend to have makeups consisting of low walks and high strikeouts. For example, against “Power” pitchers (pitchers that are in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks), Donaldson has a career line of .210/.316/.356, showing that he struggles with pitchers who have strikeout potential, whether elite or not. He’s not alone in being a top offensive player that struggles against power pitching in relation to his overall performance: the benevolent baseball god Mike Trout slashes a fairly pedestrian (for him) .269/.379/.473 against the high strikeout arms.

The most important point to remember when looking at these statistics is that Josh Donaldson is currently one of the best players in baseball, regardless of his past performance versus elite pitching. He is a player that has enjoyed only a year and a half of sustained high-level performance and is continuing to make adjustments in hopes of greater success, which could completely alter his future at bats versus these elite arms I’ve highlighted. However, my gut tells me he may always struggle with these pitchers due to his approach at the plate, which trades contact for power – an Oakland A’s team-wide trait. It bears further scrutiny in the future for his potential playoff success, as he will obviously face more elite pitching in October when the average arms have gone home for the offseason. Will Donaldson and the Oakland A’s home run-centric approach carry them to a deep playoff run against the best arms in the game? Fortunately for us, it looks like we’re going to find out.

Wondering about the two home runs he hit off of Bumgarner and Sale? EXTRA CREDIT BONUS FREE BASEBALL GIFS!

Off Madison Bumgarner: May 27, 2013, 2-0, no out, 1 on, 4-seam fastball:


Off Chris Sale: June 8th, 2013, 1-1, 1 out, 3 on (oppo taco all the way), 2-seam fastball: