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Breaking Down Josh Donaldson the Hitter

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Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, you probably already know the obvious details on the newly acquired Josh Donaldson: came out of nowhere in 2012, huge upgrade, great defender, very good hitter, etc. The purpose of this piece is to go deeper, and look at Donaldson in depth to get an idea of strength and weaknesses, as well as perhaps areas where he could improve with the Jays. But first, a brief look at the big picture:

Overall BB% K% BABIP ISO wRC+ LD% GB% FB% Pop/FB HR/FB
Donaldson 9.9% 18.5% 0.299 0.201 127 17.8% 43.9% 38.3% 10.3% 13.8%
MLB Average 8.0% 19.5% 0.300 0.146 100 21.0% 44.5% 34.5% 9.8% 10.5%

All data above and throughout is from Fangraphs, and MLB average refers to 2012-14 average for all non-pitchers. I have singled out the four components - K%, BB%, BABIP, and isolated power - that are largely responsible for driving difference in production. By focussing on these, we can get a better idea of the type of hitter Donaldson is and how he produced to the level he does. The batted ball data to the right in turn is useful in explaining differences in BABIP and ISO.

Donaldson basically succeeds by doing everything by doing everything well, and a few things very well. Career to date, he's walked a little more than average (+1.9%) while striking out a little less (-1%). He's had an average BABIP despite a batted ball profile skewed towards fly balls (low BABIP) and away from line drives (high BABIP), suggesting he hits the ball hard. His power numbers are excellent, driven by the higher fly ball rate and an ability to convert them into home runs (+3.3%).

Josh Donaldson has Significant Platoon Splits

v. LHP 10.7% 19.3% 0.283 0.292 165 17.8% 38.8% 43.4% 6.9% 18.9%
v. RHP 9.6% 23.7% 0.306 0.149 112 17.8% 46.1% 36.0% 12.1% 11.1%

For his career, Donaldson has been a good hitter against righties while absolutely mashed lefties. Against southpaws, Donaldson has a strong fly ball orientation, which works great as he drives them out of the park a whopping 19% of the time while only popping them up 7% of the time. Naturally, this results in huge power numbers. The BABIP looks a little low, but that's because all those bombs are excluded from the calculation (fortunately, not so on the scoreboard). Unsurprisingly, he walks at an above average clip while striking out an average amount.

Against righties, there's no part of his game that is exceedingly weak, but there's nothing that really stands out either. He both walks and strikes out a little above average, with a decent BABIP and slightly below average power. His batted ball profile is more in line with league average, as are his home run and popup rates.

Josh Donaldson has been Much Better Away from Oakland

Home 9.5% 17.2% 0.284 0.184 120 17.7% 42.2% 40.1% 12.4% 11.5%
Away 10.4% 19.7% 0.313 0.196 134 18.0% 45.5% 36.6% 8.1% 16.2%

This is where things get really exciting for Jays fans: the last column on the right. On the road, Donaldson has sent fly balls out of the park 16% of the time, well above average. Oakland is a tough park in which to hit home runs, and Donaldson did so just 11.5% of the time. Rogers Centre is a great place to hit home runs, and his home run totals will surge if he just matches his career rate on the road, nevermind exceeds it in a favourable environment. In fact, it goes further than that, since other AL West parks (Seattle, Anaheim) tend to suppress power, while other AL East parks are good for power (Boston, New York, Baltimore). Consider the following:

Donaldson Team GP in 2014 2015
TOR, BAL, BOS & NYY 12 110
OAK, LAA, SEA & TB 103 18

Josh Donaldson has Succeeded on all Batted Ball Types

Ground Balls 0.257 0.257 0.025 48
Fly Balls 0.252 0.141 0.498 175 10.3% 12.9%
Line Drives 0.712 0.707 0.227 380 1.9%
Ground Balls 0.237 0.237 0.020 32 0.0%
Fly Balls 0.214 0.124 0.405 120 9.8% 10.2%
Line Drives 0.685 0.683 0.199 351 0.6%

Unlike Jose Bautista (for example), who basically punches his ticket entirely on fly balls, Donaldson has been above league average across the board. On each batted ball type, he's posted an above average BABIP by 15-25 points, which suggests superior contact skills. For ground balls, the higher BABIP drives a modest increase in production, but it adds up since it accounts for about 40% of all balls in play and 25% of overall plate appearances. Likewise, he ends up slightly ahead on line drives, with the higher BABIP masking and offsetting slightly below average power. By his bread and butter is in fly balls, where he gets well above average power while getting more balls to drop in.

Josh Donaldson is an Incredibly Balanced Hitter

Pull 0.335 0.280 0.309 175 13.7% 62.5% 23.8% 12.4% 31.9%
Middle 0.323 0.297 0.189 133 19.3% 39.8% 40.9% 3.3% 8.9%
Opposite 0.359 0.332 0.202 159 22.5% 18.2% 59.3% 16.6% 6.7%
Pull 0.337 0.294 0.268 160 19.6% 60.2% 20.1% 9.4% 30.7%
Middle 0.330 0.315 0.135 118 21.1% 42.0% 36.9% 4.2% 6.0%
Opposite 0.297 0.286 0.130 96 23.2% 22.8% 54.0% 15.3% 2.8%

Donaldson is tremendous at using the entire field, recording above production to all fields. His BABIP when going pull or middle are below average, but when factoring home runs back in (OBP) are much closer to average. His superior power makes him an above average hitter in both those fields. What is particularly interesting that his home run rate when pulling the ball is pretty pedestrian, just 1.2% above average whereas to other fields is well above average, especially on a relative basis. This might suggest some additional power to be unlocked!

But where Donaldson really distinguishes himself is in hitting to the opposite field, recording both a high BABIP and very strong power and resulting in a 159 wRC+ compared to just 96 for the league. A big factor is that doubles the league rate in driving fly balls out to the opposite, though it also appears that more of them fall in as well.

This Has No* Predictive Value, but Josh Donalson has Been a Very Clutch Hitter

Leverage BB% K% BABIP ISO wRC+ LD% GB% FB% Pop/FB HR/FB
Low 9.4% 18.3% 0.282 0.176 115 17.3% 43.6% 39.1% 8.5% 11.7%
Medium 10.1% 18.0% 0.310 0.214 141 18.6% 43.0% 38.5% 11.6% 15.7%
High 12.0% 21.7% 0.353 0.177 139 17.6% 49.1% 33.3% 16.7% 19.4%

As the importance of the situation has risen, Donaldson has risen to the occasion. He walks more, his BABIP increases significantly, and he has hit more fly balls out for home runs. In low leverage situations, he's been merely a good-to-very good hitter. When the pressure rises, he's been outstanding.

Leverage BB% K% BABIP ISO wRC+ LD% GB% FB% Pop/FB HR/FB
Bases Empty 7.7% 19.4% 0.264 0.172 101 17.1% 42.9% 40.0% 11.0% 11.8%
Men on Base 12.8% 17.4% 0.346 0.215 161 18.8% 45.1% 36.1% 9.2% 16.8%
Men In Scoring 16.0% 16.0% 0.344 0.161 151 17.0% 49.5% 33.6% 9.3% 13.4%

The same is true situationally. With no one, he's been a pedestrian hitter, almost perfectly league average in all components except a low BABIP and higher power. With runners on, he's absolutely mashed, with great plate discipline, a huge BABIP and good power numbers driven by above average HR/FB rates. Granted, players hit better with runners on anyway, but not nearly to the extent Donaldson has.

(*Technically not no predictive value, but close enough to not bother splitting hairs and possibly giving birth to a narrative that will require crushing later)