Josh Donaldson Talks Hitting

Josh Donaldson has a 138 wRC+ since becoming a full-time player in 2013, and power has been a big part of that equation. Not counting last year’s pandemic-shortened season, and an injury-marred 2018, the 35-year-old third baseman has averaged 31 home runs annually. Now in his second year with the Minnesota Twins, Donaldson is a three-time All-Star who has been awarded a pair of Silver Sluggers.

He’s also an analytics-savvy hitting nerd who spends a lot of time thinking about his craft, and he doesn’t always do so in a predictable way. When Donaldson sat down for this interview in late August — the Twins were playing in Boston — he didn’t wait for a question; he asked a rhetorical one of his own.


Josh Donaldson: “Are barrels overrated? In 2019, my OPS was good. Last year, I didn’t really have enough at-bats to log. This year, my OPS isn’t good — not for my standards — but if you go look at the charts, all of my [quality of contact] categories are red. They’re well into the 90s for percentiles.

“I looked at guys around the league who are having really good years. I looked at Marcus Semien, who is having a great year. I looked at a guy like Nolan Arenado, who has been a really good hitter for awhile. You go throughout the league and look at guys’ hard-hit percentages, and it’s like, ‘Is that good?’ That’s one thing I’ve been kind of tinkering with.

“Obviously, you want to be able to hit the ball hard — you want to drive balls — but I think there’s also something to… say, for instance, someone like Tony Gwynn. Are you able to control the barrel with where it’s pitched? Maybe it’s an inside pitch and you’re able to stay inside it and fight it off the other way to get a hit. That’s versus… I mean, I’ve gotten pitches in, or I’ve gotten pitches middle, and I’ve smoked them on the ground, or I’ve hit a line drive where the defense is playing.

Freddie Freeman. You look at his Baseball Savant page, and it’s really good. He’s in the 99th percentile in a lot of categories, but I know that his thought-process is to hit a line drive to where the shortstop is. He’s always focused on doing that, yet has the ability to turn on some balls as well. So I think there’s an argument to be made… or at least it’s something that I’m kind of digging into a little bit more. Is hitting the ball hard good, or is it bad?”

Laurila: The overall metrics show that it’s good, right? But like you alluded to, the defense is going to play a role. The ballpark can as well.

Donaldson: “I mean, there are a lot of factors that play into it. That’s what I’ve been looking at. It’s kind of, ‘Should I give up this to do that?’ and wait for when I’m dialed in to where now I can say, ‘I can leave anywhere in the ballpark.’ But there are ballpark instances, too. If you’re playing outdoors with a stiff wind blowing in, it probably doesn’t serve you well to hit the ball hard in the air, especially to the big part of the field.”

Laurila: That said, you’re a player who is expected to produce extra-base hits and drive in runs. Can a hitter do that without consistently barreling the ball?

Donaldson: “If you go look at some guys across the league, they are. They don’t necessarily hit the ball particularly hard. That’s what I’ve kind of been digging into: guys that are having good years, versus guys that are having okay years. What’s the difference? Is there any correlation to this?

“If you look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr., he’s having a great year. You look at Shohei Ohtani’s year. Those guys are in the 98th-99th percentile metrics for hard-hit balls. But I also see guys that are hitting the ball softer having success.”

Laurila: Adam Frazier would have fit into that category for much of the season; he was batting around .330 with an OBP close to .400. Of course, his BABIP was high, as well.

Donaldson: “In 2019, my BABIP wasn’t high. This year it hasn’t been high. So I’m trying to see if there’s a correlation there, as well. Not across the league, but kind of just on my own surface.”

Laurila: When yours is especially low over a period of time — say a month or two — what are you seeing in terms of where you’re hitting the ball?

Donaldson: “I look at that. The one thing I’ll say is that the difference between being locked in at the plate and being just a hair off… for me, I still might hit a ball hard, but maybe I’m hitting on top of it. Or maybe I’ve hit the ball hard, but I’m just underneath it. That’s versus when I get dialed in, when every ball is leaving the bat at that higher-line-drive trajectory.

“You need to be able to make adjustments. I’ve played around with a two-strike adjustment kind of deal, but I’ve gone away from it at times. I’ve kind of floated back and forth. I’ve looked at my two-strike numbers — obviously, most of the time two-strike numbers are going to be bad — and will think, ‘I could be better than that; what do I need to do?’

“To me, it’s all about ‘How can I try to improve as a hitter?’ I’ve never wanted to be just ‘slug,’ a guy who is going to hit homers, and that’s it. That’s not my style. I want to drive the baseball, but I also want to be able to handle the bat. There’s a standard for that. You look at Albert Pujols in his prime. You look at Miguel Cabrera in his prime. They were able to do both. The goal is to be elite, and the only way to get there is to have an understanding of what it takes to get there.”

Laurila: Have you ever consciously tried to change as a hitter?

Donaldson: “Oh, yeah. I’ve made adjustments throughout the entirety of my career.”

Laurila: “I’m referring to big adjustments. For instance, making meaningful changes with the intent of hitting more balls in the air?

Donaldson: “That was when I first started taking off, right? When I first got to the big leagues, I made a conscious effort to hit balls in the air. And when I’m hitting balls in the air — consistently hitting the ball in the air — that’s a good sign. But there are also times when you hit some balls weaker in the air, or whatnot. That brings us back to the complexity of the issue.”

Laurila: What specifically did you do to try to hit more balls in the air? A hitter I talked to recently said it’s often more about intent than the swing itself.

Donaldson: “The intent definitely plays. Understanding the strike zone plays. Being able to repeat mechanics in a swing… you can see a guy that has a really good approach, and he could have good numbers. You can have a guy that has good mechanics and have somewhat bad numbers. Right? The guy that’s dangerous is the one who can have both a good approach and good mechanics, with the ability to repeat those mechanics.

“Over the course of time, you’re playing this cat-and-mouse game. The league is definitely… pitching-wise, guys aren’t challenging dudes with fastballs anymore. I think that’s a known fact. They might show fastball, but they’re not going to… who was the guy who threw against us here two days ago?”

Laurila: Tanner Houck, the right-hander with the good slider?

Donaldson: “Yes. He got to 3-0 twice, then came with a fastball on 3-1. He did it once to me, and once to another guy. I was sitting there like, ‘Wow, you don’t see that very often anymore.’ So there’s always this fine line, with pitchers trying to get swings-and-misses. It’s a battle, this chess battle, where you’re going back and forth.”

Laurila: Do you like the term ‘launch angle,’ or have you actually come to hate it?

Donaldson: “I think it’s just misunderstood. You have gurus out there, saying, ‘Hey, launch angle. Hit the ball high in the air.’ That’s not necessarily the goal. Going back to what you were saying earlier about mental changes, what changed for me when I was making a more conscious effort to keep the ball off the ground was that I had to be okay with a miss every now and again. I was taught growing up that it was good if you hit the ball hard on the ground, and bad if you hit a fly ball. I think a lot of guys were taught that.”

Laurila: Pop-ups and routine fly balls are almost always outs…

Donaldson: “Yes, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to hit a hard line drive — a higher line drive — in the air. That’s the ultimate goal, and when you understand what the goal is, if you can stay patient with that, and learn how to do that, you’ll get more results.”

Laurila: Are you almost always trying to get your A-swing off? From my perspective, you’ve swung out of your shoes a couple of times in this series.

Donaldson: “I’d say I’ve opened it up a couple times. In hitting, there’s this thing called passive aggressiveness. What you want is selective aggressiveness. Right? If I get two passive, I start hitting balls weaker, in play. If I get too aggressive, to where I’m swinging too hard, now I’m fouling balls off.

“When the body feels like it has to speed up, that’s when you get the the over-swing. When the body gets out of sync, which can also be predicated from rushing, then it has to slow down in order to make contact. Again, there’s this fine line.”

Laurila: You’re referring to timing…

Donaldson: “It’s timing, and syncing with the pitcher on the mound. And you’ll notice that there are more antics than before.”

Laurila: Néstor Cortes Jr., the lefty with the Yankees, uses multiple deliveries to mess with timing.

Donaldson: “Same situation. He’s trying to not allow you to sync up with what he’s doing, because he’s not an overpowering guy. He knows that, so he’s trying to throw your timing off. But the timing is more of a synchronizing of the body to swing. It’s not necessarily… timing isn’t a one-size-fits-all problem. The equation is different for everybody, depending on limbs, flexibility, set up. A lot of factors play into it.”

Laurila: Thinking aloud, I wonder if certain type of hitters are equipped to handle those types of pitchers better or worse than others.

Donaldson: “I would think that with those types of pitchers, the guys that predominantly hit them are probably the ones with less movement in their swings. A guy like a Paul Goldschmidt. Erick Aybar was a guy who was kind of crouched and had very little movement. I think those kinds of guys would be less effected by that.”

Laurila: Circling back to what you were saying about barrels, would you say this been a bad-luck season for you in terms of results?

Donaldson: “Maybe it’s just a fluke of a year for me so far, but I think I’ve had a total of 21 balls that have either been at the track or off the wall. The most I’ve ever had in season before that was 17. My exit velocity is higher than it’s ever been. All of these things… the numbers say, ‘Hey, this is good.’ My barrels have been higher, but balls are being caught.

“I have an A-swing. I have a B-swing. I have these different types of swings that I can take. The situation might not always allow — or the pitcher on the mound might not always allow — me to take an A-swing. There are all these factors toward the pluses and the negatives, and you’re always trying to figure out which one is going to correlate to success.”

Laurila: What constitutes success for a hitter? Is it hitting the ball hard, or is it something else? I guess that’s the question you’ve been asking yourself…

Donaldson: “I’ve been a firm believer, for a long time, that barrels are going to win. The more barrels I can hit, the more I’m going to win. But there are other routes [to success] as well. That’s what I’m opening up to. There are other routes… not necessarily hitting the ball ‘softer,’ but having an intent to do something other than just trying to hit it hard. That said, it’s not going to be ‘Oh, hey, I’m going to touch the baseball; I’m going to make contact.’ To me, trying to make contact is the worst thing you could possibly do with a swing. If you do that, you’ll open up your strike zone and swing at more pitches than you’ve ever swung at before. You still need to swing at the right pitches, so basically my intent might be less of trying to damage the baseball.”

Laurila: Maybe having less intent to catch the pitch out front?

Donaldson: “Yes, maybe focus on catching it a little deeper. An adjustment I’ve learned works for me is to take my right-hand pressure off the bat. I’m holding my top hand to where I can have more focus with the bottom hand. That’s going to hold my angle to where my barrel isn’t going to roll over.”

Laurila: That said, a lot of hitters will say that the top hand is the most important hand with a swing…

Donaldson: “I’ve heard that from a lot of guys. They like to think top hand. For me, that doesn’t work. If I think top hand, I roll balls over all day. For me, it’s more of the opposite. Like [legendary golfer] Ben Hogan… I don’t know if you’ve watched his documentary, but it’s still swing mechanics, right? He’s talking about being able to control flight, which to a certain extent is what we’re trying to do as hitters. Whenever Hogan had a case of the hooks, he would literally take his right hand off of the club. If the right hand stays on, that face can turn over to where the ball starts left and goes left. What I’m trying to say is, if my bat was a golf club and my barrel is the club face, I’m trying to keep my club face toward center field, or to right-center, as long as possible before it goes left. The swing is always going to go left, it’s just a matter of when, and how hard.”


Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Tim Hyers, Jimmy Kerr, Trevor Larnach, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Brent Rooker,, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Zac Veen, Luke Voit, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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2 years ago

David: I just love these interviews. One of my favorite aspects of Fangraphs. Thanks.