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 here 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.