Josh Donaldson: The Case Of The Fluctuating BABIP

{Shortly after I first published this, Cindi tried to unplug the blender after making one of her "Cindi's Lo-Cal Sooooo Much Tastier Than Dori's" blueberri smoothies, but accidentally pulled the wrong cord and unplugged the internet. Sorry for all the tech issues many of you, myself included, have experienced with AN in the last 24 hours. I hope you enjoy, and will weigh in with your thoughts on, this post. -Nico}

Ah, Encyclopedia Brown. He and Tintin are two of my favorite asexual buttinskies ever to solve fictional problems in real time. Josh Donaldson, though, is a conundrum that might force even Bianca Castafiore's voice to crack, is a puzzle that could cause Encyclopedia to feel more "Decent Dictionary-ish," has a BABIP that might make Cuthbert Calculus' pendulum appear, in comparison, not to fluctuate that wildly at all. Because if Josh Donaldson has been consistent about one thing so far in his career, it's being inconsistent about translating batted balls into hits.

This post uses a lot of numbers, but please don't mistake that for being an attempt to answer the questions raised. I am not using numbers to prove a point, because these are numbers for which I have no answers. Thus, I'm curious to hear your (the collective "your") thoughts on what might best explain the data.

Before you jump into the land of Donaldstats (his full Fangraphs statistical profile can be found here), BABIP represents "batting average on balls in play" (how often does a ball you put into play turn into a single, double, or triple, as opposed to a fly out or a ground out?). Major league hitters generally have BABIPs around .290-.300, give or take, and hitters are believed to influence their own BABIP (through making harder or worse contact) more than pitchers can control the BABIPs they allow. In other words, for hitters luck is certainly involved but less so than for pitchers.

Donaldson was just 21 years old when he put together an outstanding 2007 season for the Cubs in short-season A-ball. Donaldson's gaudy.346/.470/.605 slash line was fueled by a BABIP of .392.

However, the A's were able to get Donaldson as one of 4 prospects in the Rich Harden/Chad Gaudin deal because in 2008 Donaldson got off to a woeful start at the plate. He was batting just .217/.276/.349 in A-ball when the A's traded for him. His BABIP? A paltry .239.

The change of scenery proved friendly to Donaldson, as he finished the 2008 season at single-A+. Donaldson's slash line jumped to .330/.391/.564...on the strength of an suddenly garish .353 BABIP.

2009 in AA? .270/.379/.415, really his first "kind of normal" season absent huge peaks and deep valleys. His BABIP? A rather ordinary .320.

Promoted to AAA Sacramento for the 2010 season, Donaldson hit for a low average while walking a lot and hitting for good power. His slash line: .238/.336/.476. His BABIP? .255.

Donaldson spent the 2011 season back in Sacramento at the age of 25, a bit old for his league for the first time, and put together his most unremarkable slash line and BABIP: .261/.344/.439, with a BABIP of .301.

So let's zoom in on the BABIPs:

2007 (A-): .392
2008 (Cubs A): .239
2008 (A's A+): .353
2009 (A's AA): .320
2010 (A's AAA): .255
2011 (A's AAA): .301

Over the past 3 years, the variance is small enough that you can reasonably attribute a lot of it to "luck and statistical noise". For all we know, the whole thing is a grand statistical fluke that has already begun to normalize itself over time. But jumps like .392 to .239 to .353, then soon down to .255 -- these are wilder fluctuations than you normally see and they are bigger changes than one can easily attribute just to chance.

If we presume that Donaldson probably hit the ball hard, often, in 2007, made a lot of routine outs with the Cubs in 2008 but hit the ball much better the second part of the year, and maybe didn't hit the ball so well against his AAA peers at the age of 24, and presume he didn't bloop dozens of hits one year and then scorch liner after liner right at someone the next, what best explains these wildly fluctuating levels of success on balls hit in the air and on the ground against minor league pitching?

And what can we expect in the big leagues if Donaldson wins, at least for the time being, the starting gig at 3B? Given his very good plate discipline and decent pop, with a "highish BABIP" Donaldson could produce a really solid line of, say, .270/.360/.420, while with a "lowish" one that line could become more like an uninspiring .220/.310/.390. What do you expect from Donaldson in terms of BABIP, and subsequent overall numbers, going forward -- and most of all, why has his success on putting balls in play varied so much?

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