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May 13, 2013

Painting the Black

The Helpless Hitter Who Finally Put His Foot Down

by R.J. Anderson

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The unfortunate truth is teams sometimes benefit from their players' injuries. Take Oakland. 

Last spring the A's entered camp with Scott Sizemore as their everyday third baseman. Sizemore's season soon ended when he suffered a torn ACL during fielding practice. The A's tried replacing Sizemore with various options, including Brandon Inge, yet when August rolled around they turned to Josh Donaldson. Donaldson's prospects of success were limited. He started the season as part of a third-base platoon but his poor play precipitated Luke Hughes' short-lived tenure in green and gold. Donaldson failed to capture Oakland's imagination during a later fill-in stint for Inge as well, though he made good on a third try, and played well enough to earn the third-base gig outright. 

Splitting a season into halves is usually more propaganda than science. The time spans are often arbitrary, and borne with mendacious intent. Donaldson's 2012 offers no alternatives. His overall numbers are skewed downward by his first 100 plate appearances, in which he batted .153/.160/.235. Or are they skewed upward by his .290/.356/.489 line over his final 194 trips to the plate? Donaldson's early-season play—he entered Sunday at .301/.381/.507—suggests the latter, but should we believe it?

A full-time third baseman his freshman season at the Auburn University, Donaldson took up catching in the ensuing seasons. Though Donaldson's defense lagged behind his bat, he possessed a strong arm and good athleticism. A promising showing in the 2006 Cape Cod League gave teams confidence that Donaldson could hit with wood. The following summer the Cubs drafted Donaldson 48th overall, and he rewarded them with a strong showing in his first taste of professional ball. The good vibes ceased over the next year. Donaldson struggled and the Cubs were persuaded to trade him, along with two others, in a five-player deal for Rich Harden. Oakland unshackled Donaldson's bat by playing him at other positions, and he reached the majors for the first time in 2010.

But ascribing Donaldson's turnaround to the blooming of natural talent is boring. He may have possessed solid pop and contact skills all along, but something prevented those skills from translating into results. That something appeared to be poor pitch selection. When Donaldson returned last August Jason Wojciechowski offered him some advice: "[If] you want to have success in this trip to the big leagues, even if it's just two weeks while Inge heals up, don't swing so much. Just breathe, brother, breathe."

Donaldson wanted success in the big leagues, so he breathed:

Josh Donaldson's Improved Strike-Zone Command, 2012

Split

Pitches

Swing%

Z-Swing%

O-Swing%

Contact%

First

352

51.7%

67.0%

35.8%

75.3%

Second

723

47.9%

63.8%

31.2%

77.5%

 

And he's continued to breathe in 2013: 

Season

Pitches

Swing%

Z-Swing%

O-Swing%

Contact%

2012

1075

49.1%

64.8%

32.6%

76.7%

2013

645

43.7%

63.6%

25.4%

81.6%

Of course there's more to Donaldson's improved decision-making than inhalation—in fact it often works the other way around. Donaldson tweaked a number of things about his batting stance and mechanics. He flattened his bat angle and raised his hands, from brim-level to logo-level. He continued embracing a leg lift installed sometime after his 2010 debut. One of Donaldson's confidants, Bobby Tewksbarry, recently wrote an in-depth evaluation of Donaldson's mechanics in which he credited the leg kick for the new-found discipline: 

 

While some people might think the bigger leg kick is too much movement, when you use it properly it actually offers a great deal of control. You obviously shouldn’t just be lunging forward, but the leg kick into the creep forward allows the hitter to be balanced on the back leg during pitch recognition. This is where I see hitters establishing good adjustability to the pitch they are facing.

 

The key with a leg kick is the same as with any other hitting-mechanic oddity: it's okay so long as the batter can get into the hitting position consistently and in time. That means, in no small part, getting the front foot down in time. If the batter cannot get into the hitting position in time then he becomes an easy target for pitchers. Donaldson struggled with timing throughout the first half of last season. Perhaps because he needed to account for a hitch in his swing, in which he raises his hands just a bit after he finishes his load. He appeared to get it right after spending some time in the minors.

Go through Donaldson's MLB.com highlights and pick one from April or May of last season, and then one from August or 2013. Pause when Donaldson's leg kick reaches its apex. Now look at the location of the baseball. Or just check out these stills: 

Those images are from randomly picked highlights (admittedly there were few early-season highlights from 2012 to choose from). Donaldson's leg used to begin its descent with the ball in transit. Now he plants his front foot sooner, putting him in a better position to track and strike the ball; thus granting him longer looks at the pitch and, since he's no longer caught in-between, better swings. 

This is the kind of change PECOTA is not accounting for when it projects Donaldson to hit .243/.308/.422 the rest of the way. The good news for the A's is even if Donaldson regresses the gap between his current production and the projection should allow him to remain a positive contributor. Were he to split the difference and hit .270/.343/.454 the rest of the way, he would combine above-average offensive production at the position (third basemen hit .261/.320/.420 last season) with average-to-above-average defense and favorable baserunning. 

Everyone knows the story of Wally Pipp. Donaldson is no Gehrig, but he might be a solid starting third baseman for the next few seasons. 

Hat tip to Rob McQuown and Sam Miller for research assistance, and Dave in Chicago, who put Josh Donaldson on my watch list a few weeks ago

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Josh Donaldson

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