“Nothing has ever come easy for me, especially the first time around,” — Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson
Josh Donaldson played baseball for two high schools. Add to that college, two minor league sytems, and the pros, and he’s had to start over in a new place often over the course of his career. And, for the most part, he’s had a hard time at first. But with hard work and a few changes to his approach, he’s come back and been dominant. The process of acclimating, to Donaldson, is equal parts understanding himself and understanding the new situation.
Donaldson was bullied at his first high school, a situation that makes acclimating fairly impossible. After transferring to Faith Academy, he blossomed as a baseball player and signed with Auburn. At Auburn, he wasn’t the starting third baseman to begin his freshman year, but he ended up the top freshman on the team. He did so by “constantly working,” a process which helped him better his slugging numbers every season in college. Once he was drafted, he said that fall was his “first time seeing really good sliders,” which might help explain the .182/.308/.364 line in rookie ball.
But Donaldson rebounded. With hiccups. In A-Ball, he was 87% better than league average. In High-A, 22% worse. But eventually, he got the hang of it, with his walk rate and power stabilizing at above league average rates by the time he’d figured out Triple-A. Donaldson said that he does feel like he has a “decent amount of athletic ability,” but that it also takes him “one or two times to get adjusted,” and that was true of every minor league level except Double-A, which he only attempted once.
He still had one last hill to climb in the majors. Even including last year’s torrid ending, Donaldson came into this season with a walk rate that was less than half his minor league rate. That speaks to his eagerness to prove his worth.
If that sounds like some armchair psychology, listen to the player explain it: “Any time I go somewhere for the first time I want to make a big impression right away, and in my mind, the way to make that impression is hitting.” Donaldson went on to admit that meant aggressiveness and huge swings the first few times he came to Oakland. Pitchers saw him swinging hard and “aren’t that dumb.” They figured out how to exploit him.
And he wasn’t being his usual boisterous, up-beat, expressive self either. He didn’t want to step at toes. He was the rook. He didn’t want to “ruffle feathers.” But giving his all, and being that loud version of himself, those two things are intertwined. “I only know one way to play the game, and if it’s going to step on any toes, obviously I don’t mean that, but it’s going to happen when you play 162 games,” he said to link the two explicitly.
Maybe the nice second half last year opened things up for him. He’s being himself in the clubhouse and on the field more, and his walk rate and power are back up to the levels that his minor league numbers suggested were possible. Were there also mechanical tweaks that he made to make this possible?
“Understanding my body and understanding the movements I’m making at the plate has definitely helped, and understanding how to control that has helped me to see the pitch longer,” says Donaldson. Thanks to Bobby Tewksbary of Tewkshitting.com, we have two great side-by-side views of Donaldson, one at Auburn, and one this year. Perhaps we can see some of what Donaldson describes:
Armchair hitting coaches like myself might see all that hand movement before the pitch and wonder why he added it to what was a simple swing at Auburn. But we’ve just recently learned how little is prescriptive when it comes to swing coaching — it doesn’t look like there is a perfect swing. And when Donaldson speaks of understanding his movements, and how to control those movements, he could be talking about that second movement with the hands once the swing has started. Although that second lift might seem awkward, that little movement with the hands is something that Donaldson can easily alter mid-swing. Maybe he holds them there a bit longer if he thinks it’s a changeup coming, he seems to suggest as much to Tewksbary. And maybe that movement has allowed him to hit the high pitch better this year. Take a look at a heat map that compares this year’s version of the hitter to his previous self:
This year, Donaldson is hitting the most ground balls of his career. This year, Donaldson is showing career highs in every power category. When asked about it, Donaldson admitted: “One thing this offseason that I really tried to work on was my swing plane.”
That’s something we’ve heard from players in the past, but Donaldson added a wrinkle. The slugger is “trying to match” his swing plane to “where the pitch is coming from.” And though Adrian Beltre often seems like a free swinger, Donaldson pointed to the Rangers’ slugger as a prime example. When Adrian Beltre goes down on one knee? “He’s doing what his body and eyes tell him to do,” Donaldson said, which is to “go down there and get that low curveball, and to match the plane of the pitch.”
Curveballs have never been Donaldson’s problem. By the pitch type values on this site, they’re his best pitch. This year, he’s hit one home run off the pitch, on April 11th, thanks to Jason Vargas:
There’s a lot more golf in that swing than the one above, and it’s not all about location. That’s a hanger, and it’s not really low. But Donaldson identified the curve, and matched the plane of the pitch with his own swing. Yahtzee.
This former catcher has taken off since he last donned the tools of ignorance and squatted behind the plate, and he’s noticed. “I’d like to say that leaving catching didn’t help me hitting, but honestly I think it has,” Donaldson admitted. Not that the work is so much harder behind the plate — third base is hard, even if he does appreciate what they do behind the plate — but because now, when he’s locked in at the plate, he doesn’t have to sit. At third base, he’s been able to “ride it out longer” since he can be put in the lineup more often. That’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate John Jaso and Derek Norris (every time he sees them get “balls off the body”), but he’s happy to be playing every day.
And really, that happiness must be part of the package with Donaldson. Not many of us are at our best the first time we hit a situation. But give us a couple shots, as the Athletics have done for Josh Donaldson, and you may just find impressive production just a few tweaks away. Just takes a little adjusting.
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.