Analyzing prospects is the name of the game here at BP; you can’t spell Prospectus without prospects after all! Once in a while it’s appropriate to step back and observe how the very best in the game do their thing. With the season about two-thirds finished, there are four hitters leading the pack in terms of production. That, in itself, is nothing to write home about, but two of those hitters demolish baseballs in distinctly different patterns. Time to meet the masters.
Chasing the MVP in the National League we have Paul Goldschmidt. Shooting for an AL MVP we have Josh Donaldson.
Before diving into their respective swings, consider the athletes themselves. Both of these guys weigh in at over 215 pounds and are highly athletic. It seems obvious that pro athletes are athletic, but swinging like any of these guys doesn’t mean you—or anybody else—would hit like them. Donaldson was drafted as a catcher, came up as a catcher, and then wins a Gold Glove at third base. Paul Goldschmidt is Texan and steals 15 bags a year.
Think of a car’s engine. A great swing is like having that engine finely tuned. Athletic skills are the horsepower. Don’t get so caught up in tuning the engine you neglect the horsepower. Train the athlete and train the swing. It’s when you combine the two that the end result is something special.
Donaldson and Goldschmidt might be special now, but they weren’t always regarded as such. Neither was a blue-chip prospect coming up. Donaldson was a first round pick in 2007 with the Cubs but after a solid debut his prospect sheen quickly wore off. Goldschmidt was an eighth round pick out of Texas State but never even cracked a top-100 prospect list.
So how did these “nobodies” turn into studs? They changed their swings in similar ways! Both added some movement with their hands and got more aggressive with their lower halves. Goldschmidt narrowed his stance, laid his bat down his back, and fired his backside forward rather than spin. All minor changes but it added just enough rhythm and flow to allow him to rake.
Donaldson blew the doors off his old swing. His signature leg kick and bat tip only became part of his swing five years after first being drafted. For some firsthand insight on the process of maximizing his swing I’ll defer to this article written by Donaldson’s personal hitting coach, Bobby Tewksbary.
On to their current swings!
These swings fascinate me in their precision and their differences. Donaldson has these big, aesthetically pleasing moves that ooze athleticism. Goldschmidt moves like a predator stalking its prey, where there’s just enough movement to put himself in the best position to kill. Who has the better swing? Yes!
Let’s compare the two side by side.
Both of these swings produced home runs against 95-plus mph fastballs on the inner third. This clip is exactly 61 frames long. Obviously Donaldson has the bigger actions at the plate with his high leg kick and upper-body load. With these bigger moves the assumption would be his swing would begin earlier than Goldschmidt’s. Not the case.
Goldschmidt's first move happens between frames 16 and 17. He takes the end of his bat from pointing toward the ground to pointing toward the sky. As he goes through this move, he is coiling his hips and pulling his lead shoulder in slightly. It’s not the easiest thing to see but luckily this particular clip came with a great side view as well. I trimmed the clip to show everything that happens as the pitcher is going to release the ball.
Going back to the front-view clip, Donaldson's first move happens between frames 20 and 21. He takes his bat from parallel to the ground to perpendicular. His lower body is the star of the show with a big leg kick that is actually higher than the leg kick of the pitcher he’s facing. This homer also provided a side view. While Goldschmidt’s move was subtle and hard to take in at first glance, Donaldson is the opposite.
How both hitters pattern their lower body is fascinating. All good hitters coil their hips (a small inward rotation of the hips) during the stride. Donaldson and Goldschmidt coil in vastly different ways and times. Donaldson’s coil is synced with his front knee movement.
Watch during the stride as his front knee comes up and back his hips coil. He gets into that coil early in his sequence compared to most hitters. He coils then moves forward. Donaldson then hangs onto that coil as foot comes down only to uncoil his hips as he launches the bat.
Goldschmidt coils in a less pronounced fashion than Donaldson.
Goldschmidt’s coil is synced to his front foot. As his front foot raises just an inch or so and taps the ground he gets into his coil through his hips. While this is happening his hips are moving forward as well. Donaldson coiled and then moved forward. Goldschmidt coils while moving his hips forward. It’s a completely different sequence than Donaldson uses. Look where Goldschmidt is when Donaldson is fully coiled.
So different but both these patterns work!
Hitting is timing… the barrel. Timing the impact of barrel-to-ball is the main focus of any swing. Donaldson and Goldschmidt find their timing differently and it’s tied into their lower body. Donaldson’s hips are coiled and back leg angled early in his sequence so the variable of his front foot coming down from that big leg kick is his part of his timing mechanism. Simpler version— Donaldson’s front foot is a big contributor to his timing.
Where Donaldson takes care of the backside of his swing early in the sequence, Goldschmidt takes care of the front foot. His stride is minimal with his front foot, so he’s really not timing the ball with his front side like Donaldson does. His timing comes from his backside. Compare his backside to Donaldson. Both angles steepen, but look at the change is Donaldson’s front foot position. Donaldson’s foot moved a ton so the backside angle changed. Goldschmidt’s front foot barely moved at all and his hips still progressed forward.
I know this seems convoluted. As simple as I can put it: Donaldson’s backside moves as he makes his front foot change positions from his stride to his landing. Goldschmidt’s front foot doesn’t change position so he consciously makes his backside move positions between stride and landing.
The differences continue as they go to launch the bat. Donaldson gets his back elbow above his shoulder and dramatically “rows” the elbow down to about belt height. Goldschmidt doesn’t have a big rear-arm move but he still moves it enough to generate force.
Donaldson is on record as saying he doesn’t really think about his hands in his swing and it shows. In an article written by Eno Sarris, Donaldson said, “Honestly I never really think about my hands.” His hands do move but it’s the result of his rear elbow and shoulder moving the whole arm. Watch the movements his rear elbow and shoulders go through during the swing.
Donaldson's elbow starts at nearly the same height as his hands and shoulders. As he strides, his elbow moves up above both his hands and back shoulder before firing. As his rear elbow works up watch how his front shoulder moves counter to that pattern. His front shoulder is actually pointing down as his back elbow gets up. When it is time for the rear elbow to fire down his front shoulder moves up. His whole upper body is actively at work to help power his bat.
Goldschmidt has the opposite thought-process and places more importance on the role of his hands. In an interview with Sports on Earth Goldschmidt said, “I more like to feel my swing, feeling where my hands are.” Totally different thought process from Donaldson but they both still mash.
Whereas Donaldson’s elbows and shoulders had noticeable movements to help deliver the bat, Goldschmidt moves his upper half just enough to get the barrel where it needs to be. His rear elbow never gets higher than his hands or shoulders. Looking at his front shoulder you can see how it’s pretty level to the ground until it moves up as the bat comes forward.
Very few people on the planet can move the bat like Goldschmidt as he launches. From the front view you can see his barrel flatten and blur behind his back shoulder before moving forward. Donaldson does this too, but look at how Donaldson uses his rear elbow and shoulder to accomplish a move Goldschmidt pulls off largely through his top hand. Albert Pujols is a hitter who uses his top hand similar to how Goldschmidt does but even he had some back-elbow “row” to help power the move.
To better understand how different hitters use their hands and upper body to launch the bat I highly recommend checking out the “Swing Plane Series” by Jerry Brewer.
While there are loads of differences, I love how the lead arms of both hitters work in a very similar style once the bat gets going. Look how their left arms appear to almost be glued to their chest as they turn their bodies. This means their hands aren’t pushing to the ball but are allowing the bigger muscles to drive the barrel.
That got technical. Really technical. Let’s get back to simple. Both hitters flatten the bat behind their body before the bat comes forward. Donaldson pulls this off through a big, athletic move powered by his rear elbow. Goldschmidt uses a finely tuned move powered by his hands and Bunyan-esque forearms. Once the bat gets going both hitters are strong enough with their lead arm to maximize the delivery of all the force they have created.
Part of the reason I wanted to look at these two hitters is a matter of perception. Earlier in the article I asked who has the better swing and called it a draw. Think of it this way. If these two were MMA fighters Donaldson would knock people out with huge punches or spinning kicks. Goldschmidt would be the fighter who gets submissions grabs and holds. Both win all the time but the crowd can more easily appreciate the ferocity of the fighter with the bigger moves.
Both of these hitters rake. And they do it with very different looks and points of emphasis and that’s completely fine. This is why studying hitting is great. Two hitters. Two swings. Both chasing the same three-letter trophy.
Thank you for reading
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