How Technology Led Josh Donaldson to Change

CLEVELAND — When I asked Josh Donaldson about being a founding father of the fly-ball revolution recently in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field, he re-directed the credit. The creator of the air-ball, upper-cut philosophy was Ted Williams, he noted.

Donaldson knows his history.

Williams, of course, co-authored the book The Science of Hitting. He talked about impacting the lower half of the ball. It seems like that should be required reading for all professional hitters, but I wonder what is the actual percentage of pro hitters who have read the book?

What is interesting to this author is how Donaldson arrived at his philosophy. It wasn’t from watching grainy black-and-white video of Williams. In my conversation with the right-handed slugger, he did not reference having read Williams’ thoughts as being the impetus for his belief changes. No, Donaldson arrived and adopted the #GroundballsSuck concept through what he describes as his “first love”: golf.

When the Alabama native and product of the Auburn University — the 48th overall pick in 2007 — struggled as a minor leaguer, he would take his frustrations to the driving range.

“I would try and do too much,” said Donaldson of his baseball slumps to the Golf Channel in 2014. “If you try and hit a ball too hard in golf you will end up off [the tee].”

It was in the spring of 2011 that Donaldson went to have his golf swing analyzed in Arizona, where the A’s have their spring training facility. It was on a driving range equipped with a TrackMan ball-tracking system that Donaldson began to think differently about his baseball swing.

“When I started thinking about hitting the ball in the air, it was actually from golf,” Donaldson told FanGraphs. “I went to a launch monitor and they said ‘You can start thinking about how you can optimize distance by hitting a golf ball at a certain angle.’ Obviously baseball is different than golf, but there are some principles in there. I cannot control what degree I can hit a baseball because it’s a moving object, and it’s not on a tee, and it’s moving at a high rate of speed. It’s more of an idea, a concept, of how you want to work. You want to try and produce a swing that if pitches show up in a certain area you can produce a swing that is going to optimize [the contact] … Not so much hitting a fly ball, but hitting a ball hard somewhere.”

What did the A’s think of his swing philosophies?

“It was an idea. I was keeping it to myself at the time,” Donaldson said. “I wasn’t saying it was some great idea, ‘This is what [hitters] should do.’ I was trying to improve myself. I thought it was a good idea to pursue.”

Donaldson is a key reason we are hearing and writing so much about launch angles in 2017. When a player buys into concepts and they produce results that include an AL MVP award, people will listen and follow.

But the purpose of this piece is not really about launch angles specifically, rather, about technology and how it can alter behavior. It’s also a reminder that baseball has not really been on the cutting edge — player tracking systems had been installed in NBA arenas and English Premier League stadiums before they arrived in Major League Baseball ballparks. TrackMan came to golf before baseball.

But interesting developments occur when the sport begins to catch up.

Josh Donaldson has been one of the leaders of the air-ball revolution. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Technology like Statcast — and its TrackMan radar element — is particularly important, because it gives hitters hard data, it allows them to better understand their swing, and to have baselines to study when making changes. Statcast data is public, which is a crucial element. Hitters can not only evaluate themselves, but they can see how the game’s best hitters rate.

Without TrackMan, Donaldson was still talented enough to become a major leaguer, but perhaps he would not be an All-Star talent.

While tools like HITf/x predated Statcast, it is interesting that not only did the ball ostensibly change in 2015, but Statcast arrived the same year. Hitters could not only launch a juicier ball, but they could better understand what exactly their swing was doing and how to optimize it.

Data is the result of a process, but it can also inform the process.

I wrote a bit about this yesterday, based off of Dr. Alan Nathan’s presentation at the Saber Seminar.

After all, it was not until heat maps based and batted-ball data were widely available — hard evidence in easily digestible forms — that many coaches and players accepted the findings and began to play defense in non-traditional ways. It was not until then that shifts proliferated throughout the game. It was data that reinforced belief with defensive positioning, and I suspect it is doing something similar with hitting.

Donaldson’s story is one of curiosity and adoption and technology’s role.

And now Donaldson must perhaps adapt again.

Donaldson is in the midst of his worst season since his rookie campaign in 2011. He is heating up at the plate recently — he homered in three straight games last week, and twice last night. Still, his .247/.370/.486 slash line is not Donaldson-like, and he has a strikeout rate (23.9%) that is easily his career worst (not counting his abbreviated and premature 2010 call-ups).

Donaldson has seen 1,302 pitches this season tracked by Statcast, and 10.14% have been fastballs in the upper portion or above the strike zone. That is a significant jump from 8.57% last season, and 8.02% in 2015, according to Statcast pitch location data via Baseball Savant. The MLB average is 9.47%. this season and it was 8.99% last season. And for whatever reason, Donaldson’s contact rate against high fastballs has declined significantly this season, compared to his prior three season.

Consider his 2017 heat map:

And his 2014-16 work:

Perhaps he feels like he has to cover a wider strike zone, perhaps his focus has widened to his detriment.

Does Donaldson feel like pitchers have adjusted to his swing and philosophy? Are pitchers better understanding his approaching and turning it against him?

“No. I haven’t [noticed],” Donaldson said. “I just noticed that I’ve fouled more balls off.”

Baseball is of course a cat-and-mouse game. A player finds an advantage, enjoys the results, and it’s incumbent upon the opposition to catch up. Donaldson created an edge, and others have followed. But everyone knows about Donaldson’s beliefs, there is strong brand recognition (See his #GroundballsSuck campaign) so he likely has had more focus from the opposition. It’s now perhaps up to Donaldson to counter-punch to end his slump, to adapt and adjust again.

The tools — the tools to better understand how to evolve and improve — are out there. And while the first one to employ technology often has an advantage, advantages do not last forever.

Without data there can often be no map toward improvement, or adjustments, worth trusting.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Love Donaldson, he’s a great player with an amazing swing but I really think that a lot of this credit he’s receiving for being the re-modernizer of this hitting methodology is a little misplaced. It seems to me that Bautista started the revolution in the second half of 2009 and continuing it into his 2010 breakout and of course since then. Bautista can be a real jerk off and it seems like some people over look his contributions to the fly ball era because he has that persona non-grata.

6 years ago
Reply to  abgb123

To that end, at one point didn’t Donaldson say that he modeled his swing after Bautista’s?

6 years ago
Reply to  Spiggy

I do recall something to the respect of Donaldson stating that he added the leg kick either before joining the Blue Jays or after because of Bautista’s use of it.