Batting average is a funny thing. We know that it's not the be-all end-all stat of hitting, and that it's only one piece of a larger analytic puzzle, but it's still a very important metric. Even if you don't cite it when talking about a hitter, you still use it as the basis for on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And, when used in the right context, it can tell us something about a hitter -- low average and high OBP means the guy walks a lot, high average and similar OBP says the guy relies on batted ball luck to reach base, low average and high slugging means the guy swings all or nothing but when he makes contact it goes a long way. If a guy hits for low average, low OBP, and low slugging, we call him Eric Sogard and pray he has a good glove.
In the second half of 2012, Josh Donaldson began to establish what kind of hitter he was going to be. After hitting what can only be described as a soft .153 in the first half (that is, no walks or power to add anything to all those outs he made), he batted .290/.356/.489 the rest of the way. We knew he had patience and power in the minors, so seeing those things finally show up wasn't a huge shock like it would be if, say, Jemile Weeks had suddenly hit 20 homers in the Majors after a career of slapping singles in smaller circuits. But that high average came out of nowhere for Donaldson. It was easy to point at his .323 BABIP as a precursor for regression, but it was also easy to respond to that by claiming his above-average rate of line drives (22.5 percent, average is 20-to-21 percent) put him in a better-than-average position to collect more hits.
In 2013, Donaldson didn't just back up his early success; he improved on it. The line drives stayed high (20.6 percent), as did the BABIP (.333), and he finished with a line of .301/.384/.499. He had become the best kind of hitter -- high average, good patience, and lots of power. That's a hitter with no weaknesses. He even cut down on his strikeouts, and he profiled more as a high-contact line-drive guy with enough power to clear the fence, rather than a prototypical all-or-nothing flyball slugger.
The beginning of 2014 showed much of the same. As of the Machado Tag Game on June 6, his line of .280/.373/.552 (with a slightly increased strikeout rate) suggested a guy who was willing to sacrifice a couple of hits to add a couple of homers. The difference wasn't huge as far as creating more outs (i.e., OBP), so the extra power was easily worth it. Donaldson had found the perfect balance to enter himself into the category of elite hitter.
But then that balance fell apart. He went on a prolonged slump over the next month, and his numbers tanked. He has since recovered, and nobody is too worried about him; he's got an .856 OPS over his last 23 games. He's rediscovered his plate discipline during that time (14 walks, 14 strikeouts), and his power is restored as well (four homers, .202 isolated slugging). But there's one thing left lacking -- he was hitting .237 at the depth of his slump, but his average is still languishing at .244 after Thursday's game against the Twins. Don't get me wrong, his other stats show that he's still a productive hitter based on his walks and his power (like his career-high .210 isolated slugging), but he's not the same hitter he was during his mammoth run from July '12 to June '14. Even if you remove his month-long slump, he's still only hitting .279 for the season.
The obvious place to look first is Donaldson's BABIP. What's more, you might be satisfied to know that his .259 mark is quite a bit lower than the .295 he's put up for his career or the .330ish he posted over a season and a half in 2012-13. The easy answer is that the average will inevitably rise with the BABIP, sooner or later. Here's the thing, though. Remember those above-average line drive rates, the ones over 20 percent? They're gone, and then some. Fangraphs has Donaldson hitting line drives on only 12.8 percent of his balls in play. To give you context, that is last in the entire Majors among qualified hitters. Among everyday players, there isn't a single guy who hits fewer line drives than Donaldson this year. And while his awful June is dragging that number down a bit, the fact is that he's been failing to hit liners all season long. Here are his percentages of batted balls that result in line drives, ground balls, and flyballs:
|Aug (7 games)||16.7||50.0||33.3|
With the exception of May, Donaldson has been hitting the ball on the ground more than he used to. He's hitting the ball in the air more, but that's been good because a higher percentage of those flies are clearing the fence -- this explains his spike in home runs. But the liners are gone, and those are the batted balls that result in by far the highest rate of hits; grounders rely on the skills and positioning of the opposing infield defense, and flies are only useful when they go really far. Note that distinguishing liners from flies can be a gray area, but when you're so low that you're last in the league then the likely margin of error isn't enough to change the narrative.
It seems to me that Donaldson has become a different type of hitter. I think the extra grounders are a mirage borne from his slumpy month of June; remove that stretch, and he's not hitting the ball on the ground any more than normal. However, between the liners turning into flies, the increased strikeouts, and the uptick from last year in swinging strikes (and decrease in contact rate), I'm wondering if Donaldson is actually trying to become a different type of hitter, consciously or subconsciously. Last year, many people suggested that Weeks was ruining himself by trying to swing for the fences, but the numbers never supported that claim. This time, the numbers are screaming that Donaldson is shifting away from being a line-drive hitter with pop and toward being an all-or-nothing flyball slugger with gaudy home run totals.
That brings us to the most important question: Is this a good thing or a bad thing? There's more than one way to skin a tiger, and just because Donaldson used to be good in one way and has now changed his game doesn't mean that he's gotten worse. Some guys get on base a lot, some guys hit lots of doubles, and some guys make up for their strikeouts by swatting dingers by the bunches. Perhaps Donaldson is becoming the latter of those three things, and it's worth noting that that's the type of hitter who often wins MVP awards. Hey, who else is joining Donnie at the bottom of that line-drive list?
Josh Donaldson, 12.8%
Hunter Pence, 13.9%
Yasiel Puig, 14.7%
Andrelton Simmons, 15.3%
Marcell Ozuna, 15.8%
Nelson Cruz, 15.9%
Eric Hosmer, 15.9%
Pedro Alvarez, 15.9%
Alex Gordon, 16.0%
Edwin Encarnacion, 16.3%
Let's see, Pence is a fantastic hitter having a career year. Puig is a stud with an OPS+ of 165. Ozuna is a 23-year-old budding star with good power. Cruz is second in MLB in homers. Alvarez is looking for his third straight 30-homer season, though he's a bit short right now. Gordon is still right on his career norm with a .317 BABIP and an OPS+ of 112. Encarnacion is one of the most terrifying sluggers in the game. Six of those 10 players were All-Stars this year, and outside of Gordon they all made it more on the strength of their hitting more than their defense (and even Gordon wasn't shabby at the plate). That's not bad company.
Donaldson's season average of .244 is bogged down by his long slump, but even without that he's more of a .270 hitter now than a guy who you can expect to bat .300. If your perception of him was a .300/.380/.500 hitter, then you should adjust that mental image; he's become a .270/.370/.520 kind of guy, with fewer hits but more power. Considering that the A's lost a big power presence in Yoenis Cespedes, and replaced him largely with an OBP-based table-setter (Sam Fuld) and a guy who hits for more average than power (Stephen Vogt), maybe Donaldson's transformation is exactly what the lineup needed. There are plenty of guys to get on base, and plenty of gap hitters to keep long rallies going.
In a world without Cespedes, the A's need that monster whose first thought is to mash it out of the park. Considering that the Bringer of Rain is just one behind his home run total from all of last year, in 47 fewer games, it appears that he's become just that. All we need to do is get used to a few extra strikeouts and a batting average that won't get anyone excited, and in this individual case that's a trade-off I'm willing to make for dingers in the No. 3 spot in the lineup.