The hands seem so important when it comes to hitters, it’s fair to maybe be fascinated with them. Where are they before the swing? How do they get to the ball? How important is the top hand with respect to the bottom hand? It’s easy to spot them, it’s easy to track them, it’s easy to talk about them.
But so much of what you do with your body determines what is happening with your hands. And so, if you talk to Josh Donaldson about hitting, he won’t have a ton to say about his hands. But his shoulders? His torso? He’ll have plenty to say about those things.
And so, even if I asked Donaldson about his hands, it’s what followed that was maybe more interesting.
“Honestly I never really think about my hands,” laughed Donaldson as we talked before a game against the Athletics. “It more has to do with angles with your legs, your spine, your shoulders. I wouldn’t consider myself a guy who has a handsy swing, that’s more of the old-school kind of thing, or guys that slap the ball around. I use more of my entire body.”
Hitting consultant Dan Farnsworth agrees that focusing on the whole body is a strength of Donaldson’s. “He definitely derives his success from putting his core and legs in a good position to drive the ball and cover the zone,” Farnsworth said. “His hands work well enough not to get in the way of that. He picks up his front leg more under his midline and carries his whole body forward, rather than reaching out in front with his foot.”
“Depending on the angle of the pitches, it’s going to change the angle of how my body is going to be at impact,” Donaldson explained further. To hit a low pitch, the batter explained, he’d have to angle his back shoulder down more. And if the front shoulder is down — for a higher pitch — he also has to match the incoming pitch with other body parts. With high pitches, “it’s more about being into my legs and matching the angle with my lower half.”
Donaldson’s swing at its best.
As his back shoulder rolls back in his swing, Donaldson will often let his bat flatten towards the third base dugout. That can lead to a fluid swing that doesn’t get to the zone too quickly, but it can also lead to what people call ‘losing the barrel.’ When you lose the barrel, it gets too far away from your body to command.
Donaldson didn’t necessarily agree with the idea that his hands and shoulders were leading to losing the barrel. “The whole definition of losing the barrel is not really letting your hands get away from you,” he said. In fact, he thought that thinking too much of your hands was part of what leads to losing the barrel. “If you’re using your whole body more, using your shoulders and your back legs, you’re going to have more control of the barrel.”
But yes, sometimes his body actions don’t match the pitch and then he can lose command of the bat. “The lower my back shoulder drops, and the higher the pitch is, obviously that doesn’t match,” Donaldson said. It may sound like semantics, but the hitter is adamant. “If I’m swinging at a high fastball and I’m dropping my shoulder, people would say you’re losing the barrel — No, not really losing the barrel, I’m not creating the right angle. Body movement is not right.”
Watch the front shoulder on this higher pitch to Donaldson
As the back shoulder drops to match the plane of the pitch, his front shoulder is often pulling up away from the plate. Many have called that action more active than most, but Donaldson says it’s pitch by pitch. “No matter what, your front shoulder is going to come off the ball,” he pointed out. “That’s an old adage ‘keep your front shoulder on.’ As I’m hitting, a lot of times, if I feel like I’m getting too quick, I’ll think ‘keep it on it longer,’ but no matter how you hit a pitch, for the most part — unless it’s a pitch that’s down and away — your front shoulder is going to come off.”
Yeah, so what about that pitch down and away? “Down and away is not my best pitch,” admitted Donaldson. “I’m trying to do damage. The only time I swing at that pitch is if I have to. So down and away is not going to be my pitch. If I have to — if it’s two strikes or something — I’m not trying to force power at that time, I’m trying to force barrel accuracy.”
“Down and away is not my best pitch” — Josh Donaldson
In what might be something like a two-strike approach — where normal batters sacrifice power for contact in order to avoid the strikeout — it sounds like Donaldson can do things a little differently to deal with the low and away pitch if he has to. But ask him what those decisions look like, and you’ve gone a bit too far. “I don’t really want to get too in depth into that…” Donaldson said, trailing off.
Is that because pitchers could exploit that if they saw him doing that? “Possibly. In hitting, in order to accomplish one thing, you’re kind of giving up another thing. For me, I can change any time. There are times when I’m 0-2 and I’m still sitting dead red in because I know their patterns. Or the pitcher keeps going out there and I’m going to have to show him I can do this in order to get a pitch I want.”
That’s something you’ll hear hitters say, that you have to make decisions when it comes to hitting. For the most part, Donaldson has decided to punish pitches in-to-middle, and that’s something most hitters have to do.
Farnsworth thought that decision-making process was apparent in most hitters, but added some nuance: “Guys who have more inefficiency have to zone in or guess more often than those who have picture-perfect movement patterns, but everyone has a “miss” they have to be aware of.”
Tailoring your swing to mash certain pitches is something we’ve heard before. We’ve also heard about changing your swing to match your home park. And even changing aspects of your swing to match your spot in the lineup. Turns out, Donaldson is doing a little bit of all of these things.
He’s hitting more fly balls at home than he ever has. “You get rewarded more for fly balls at the Rogers Centre,” Donaldson laughed. “Our turf is slow and you’re not going to get a lot from that. I’m not really a guy for ground balls anyway.”
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He’s also hitting more opposite-field fly balls than he ever has. Some of that is just the fact that he has runners on base ahead of him in that high-scoring Blue Jays’ offense. “I don’t want to hit into a double play,” Donaldson says of those situations, “and it’s way easier to hit the ball to right field in the air than avoid hitting it on the infield to the pull side.”
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Donaldson has had a lot of success since beginning to work with hitting coach Bobby Tewksbary, who threw to him in the Home Run Derby this year. They started talking in 2012, and though “Tewks” said so much that was so different from what other people preach, it wasn’t the first conversation that solidified the relationship. “It was more a feeling, when I first felt it,” Donaldson says of Tewks’ hitting philosophy meshing with his own. “I hit a walkoff to dead center in Sacramento almost off the batter’s eye. It’s 400 feet to center there, and that eye is like 80 feet behind it. I felt effortless doing it, and that’s a big part of what we try to do, is create effortless bat speed.”
With an active front shoulder, and back shoulder that drops to the ball more often than not, Donaldson’s swing will have its detractors. Perhaps he is sacrificing some coverage in order to really damage the pitches he wants to swing at. But it’s a philosophy that works for the Blue Jay, and it really does make his power look effortless. And it’s not really in the hands — with Josh Donaldson, it’s all about the whole body.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.