Josh Donaldson: Plate Discipline and Outcomes

The Bringer Of Rain strives to single-handedly provide clean drinking water for the entire world. - Thearon W. Henderson

Josh Donaldson is off to a hot start, and it might be for real.

Earlier this month, Cuppingmaster took a look at the plate discipline stats of Josh Reddick and Chris Young. He wanted to find out if there was anything in the stats to suggest why those two hitters were struggling, or (preferably) why they were due to bounce back. I'm going to do the same thing, but I'm going to look at one of the hottest hitters on the team, Josh Donaldson, and see if there is reason to believe that his success could be sustainable. As you probably know, Donaldson was one of the biggest enigmas on the team entering the 2013 season. For Donaldson, 2012 was a tale of two seasons; he put up an OPS of .395 in the 1st half, and .844 in the 2nd half. Which hitter was he going to be this year? The early returns suggest that the 2nd half success has carried over, as he is sporting a triple-slash of .327/.402/.510 with 10 doubles, but let's dig a bit deeper.

Cuppingmaster laid out the basics for looking at plate discipline stats in his previous articles, so I'm going to just reproduce his explanation here:

While most stats take some time to normalize, research has shown that plate discipline statistics reach some level of significance after only about 50 plate appearances. These data are derived from two sources: Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) classifications or PITCHf/x. BIS is basically guys sitting down watching baseball games and classifying pitches. PITCHf/x is MLB's in-house pitch classification that relies on a neural network to decide what pitches are what. Essentially, a really fancy and expensive computer program designed for decision-making. After all this, there are 9 pretty useful statistics:

O-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone.
Z-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone.
Swing%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter swings at.
O-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
Z-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with inside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
Contact%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging the bat.
Zone%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone.
F-Strike% - The percentage of first pitch strikes (BIS only)
SwStr%: The percentage of total pitches a batter swings and misses on (BIS only)

Since I much prefer PITCH/fx classifications, but BIS has two data points that PITCH/fx doesn't use, I've merged the data into one table that describes it all. The first seven columns use data from PITCH/fx, but F-Strike% and SwStr% come from BIS data. All data itself (and the above glossary terms) are from Fangraphs.

Here is the table showing Donaldson's plate discipline stats for 2012 and 2013, as well as the league-average percentages for the sake of context:

Josh Donaldson plate discipline 2012-3, in percentages

O-Swing

Z-Swing

Swing

O-Con

Z-Con

Con

Zone

F-Strike

SwStr

2012

31.9

69.0

49.2

64.5

83.5

76.9

46.6

60.9

11.4

lgAvg

29.0

62.2

45.3

63.6

87.3

79.6

49.2

59.8

9.1

2013

26.4

64.7

43.9

79.4

90.0

86.5

45.7

53.6

6.3

lgAvg

29.1

64.4

45.5

65.6

86.4

79.3

46.5

59.8

9.2

Note that league average rates for 2013 are from Fangraphs as of yesterday, April 29th.


A few more numbers for you:

Donaldson, 2012: 14 walks (4.8% of PA's), 61 strikeouts (20.7% of PA's)
Donaldson, 2013: 13 walks (11.6% of PA's), 13 strikeouts (also 11.6% of PA's)

Holy Toledo. Donaldson is a completely different hitter this year. He's swinging less often, both inside of the strike zone and out of it, but when he does swing he is making contact way more often. As a result, he is almost never swinging and missing - his Swinging Strike rate of 6.3% puts him in the top-50 in the entire Majors. Granted, Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie have even better percentages, but they both have long track records of making tons of contact; for Donaldson, this is uncharted territory in his MLB career.

As a result of his more selective approach, Donaldson is striking out less and walking more. His 1st-pitch strike rate is way down, and I wonder if that is because he is taking 1st-pitch balls more often rather than aggressively chasing them to start at-bats. Patiently getting ahead in the count tends to result in getting better pitches to hit, and Donaldson is punishing almost everything that enters the strike zone.

Good plate discipline isn't an entirely new skill for Donaldson. In his minor league career, he posted 272 walks (11.8% of PA's) and 413 strikeouts (17.9% of PA's). Minor league success obviously doesn't guarantee success in the Majors, but it is worth noting that he this new trend hasn't come completely out of nowhere.

Plate discipline isn't the only trend from Donaldson's minor league career which is suddenly resurfacing in the Majors - he has posted a .357 BABIP so far in 2013 after sporting a .323 mark in the 2nd half of 2012. While that .357 number probably sounds unsustainably high, it should be noted that Donaldson has posted BABIP's above .300 in at least one half-season at every level of the minors - he posted a .353 at High-A in 2008, .320 in AA in 2009, and .350 in half a season at AAA last year. Also, his 23.3% line drive rate is well above league-average, and he tends to keep the ball out of the air (BABIP is lowest on fly balls, compared with grounders and liners). The eyeball test also suggests that an above-average BABIP might be sustainable, since Donaldson hits the ball with authority and sprays liners to all fields seemingly at will while also possessing enough speed to beat out some infield singles.

What does all of this mean going forward? Some of these stats (BABIP, swinging strikes rate, BB:K ratio) could regress a bit, but the bottom line is that Donaldson is raking and his peripheral stats mostly suggest that it's because of an excellent approach at the plate combined with consistent line-drive contact, and not just a stroke of pure BABIP luck. I don't know that he'll finish the season with a batting average above .300, but for the first time I actually see it as a possibility. Since Donaldson tends to hit liners rather than big flies, I don't expect him to suddenly hit 30+ homers, but 20 could be a possibility to go along with 50 doubles. Furthermore, his defense at 3rd base has been amazing, and he made two absolute gems in last night's 19-inning marathon (a leaping catch to snare a sharp liner, and a barehanded play on a slow chopper to his left).

Donaldson's big, wild swing used to make me nervous. However, it's now a welcome sign, because seeing that swing means that he has deemed the current pitch to be worthy of offering at and that he may well send it screaming into the outfield wall. I was optimistic about Donaldson entering the season, but now I'm over the moon about him. Heck, he might even hit enough to win a Gold Glove this year.

According to Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, Donaldson has already accrued between 1.1 and 1.3 Wins Above Replacement this season in only 26 games. If that trend continues, he could be an All-Star this year and even get down-ballot MVP votes. Will he keep up his current pace? The journey continues tonight at 7:05pm, as Jarrod Parker and the A's limp triumphantly back onto the field to face Garrett Richards and the Angels. Cuppingmaster will have your Game Thread.

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