Nothing about Josh Donaldson being great is surprising anymore. There was the late-career breakout in 2012, and then confirmation that the breakout was real in 2013-14. And then, of course, he won the Most Valuable Player award in 2015. We love stories about unexpected rises to prominence more than anything else, and that’s true within baseball and outside of it. Once a player reaches the elite and stays there, the story of the rise fades away, and consistent excellence has a strange way of becoming almost routine — whether it deserves it or not. (Note: it does not.) The really fun part comes, however, when great players do things to try and make themselves more great, pushing themselves past the already absurdly high plateau. From what we’ve seen so far this season, Donaldson appears to be embarking on that hallowed and honorable mission.
First, a little background to what we’re talking about. Donaldson based his breakout on better patience, all-fields power, and a few aggressive mechanical changes. Those mechanical changes were based on the leg kick and bat tipping of Jose Bautista, so it was a nice coincidence when the two were united on the Blue Jays last season. Here’s a couple GIFs that visually explain some of those changes, from a 2014 interview with Jerry Brewer:
2013 swing — smaller leg kick, controlled bat tipping:
2014 swing — bigger leg kick, aggressive bat tipping:
The latter swing is more of the hitter we know today — the guy who consistently murderizes baseballs — and we can see the quite obvious visual similarities to Bautista’s swing. It’s also the swing that, along with his great defense, vaulted him into the top of the WAR leaderboards over the past few years. Since he joined the Jays, however, Donaldson’s batted-ball tendencies have trended more toward his other power-laden teammate, Edwin Encarnacion. There’s certainly potentially something to gain from him moving more toward Encarnacion’s approach, as it has mimicked the sort of trajectory a number of players follow during single-season power surges. Here, allow us to consider how.
First, let’s start with a couple of spray charts. Donaldson really broke out when he was called up to the majors during August of 2012, but for ease, we’ll just look at the last three years. Take a look at his fly balls and home runs for the 2014-2016 seasons:
In 2014 and 2015, we see fly balls and homers to all fields. Shallow, medium, deep, right, center, left — Donaldson hit them more or less everywhere. It was a part of what made him great: pitch him outside, he’ll take it over the fence in right-center. Pitch him inside, he’ll turn on it. In 2016, however, there’s a notable absence of fly balls in right-center field, extending all the way from the infield to the fence. Yes, it’s early in the season, but Donaldson has now gone over a month hitting zero fly balls into a large area of the field he frequented during 2014 and 2015. Instead, we see where those flies and homers have ended up: either into right field along the line, or pulled to left field.
That’s showing up where we think it would: in his batted-ball stats. Here’s a simple breakdown since 2014:
It’s right there in the fifth colum: he’s pulled more balls since going to Toronto, especially in 2016. And why wouldn’t he! Pulling balls in Toronto is a good way to win an MVP award when you have the sort of talent he has — just look at that immediate jump in HR/FB rate with the move to the Rogers Centre. Obviously, a jump of only three percentage points in overall Pull% from 2014 to 2015 isn’t much, and it could easily be noise. But a nice 10-point jump from 2015 to 2016? That looks like something. And it seems even more like something when we look at the rate of just fly balls that Donaldson has pulled over the past few years. Let’s take our sample back one more year to really drive this home. Here’s his fly-ball and fly-ball-pull rates since 2013:
|Season||Team||FB%||IFFB%||HR/FB||Fly Pull%||Fly Cent%||Fly Oppo%|
We see a model of consistency between 2013 and -14 in terms of where Donaldson’s fly balls were going. Then, in 2015, we see those fly balls to center field (mostly right-center, as we saw above) start to erode a little, and this year, he’s established more of a dipole — either pulling fly balls or shooting them the other way. The jump in both overall fly-ball rate (which by most accounts should have stabilized by now) and infield-fly-ball rate point to a hitter who’s trying to get under the ball more. Couple that with more pulled fly balls, and you have the potential makings of another 40-plus home-run season.
There’s one final interesting note: this actually isn’t just a 2016 phenomenon, as Donaldson started displaying this tendency in the second half of 2015. His overall Pull% rose from 35.6% to 52.6% in the second half of 2015 compared to the first, helping to fuel a 171 wRC+ after the break — and no doubt aiding his MVP credentials. There’s evidence for this type of approach beyond the first month and change of 2016, is the point.
We haven’t exactly addressed the title of this piece, however. How exactly has Donaldson gone full Encarnacion? Let’s go ahead and compare them. Here are the past three years of Encarnacion versus Donaldson’s current 2016 season:
It would be difficult to try to create a hitter as similar in makeup. Donaldson has a few more walks and a lot more strikeouts, but the batted-ball mix is totally uncanny in its current form. Has the longer-tenured Blue Jay had an influence on Donaldson’s hitting style? It’s entirely possible. Being surrounded by awesome power hitters will probably do that, especially if you aspire to hit a lot of home runs yourself. We see the approach permeating through the entire team, as well: four of the top-20 qualified hitters by Pull% are on the Blue Jays, and last year there were three in the top 20. This year, Donaldson looks like he’s decided to join them. After all, the third baseman based his swing on Jose Bautista, and using almost the exact same approach as Edwin Encarnacion? It just makes sense.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.