It’s hard to make a case against the reigning AL MVP being one of the most exciting hitters in the league to watch. A great batter’s eye, a sweet swing and of course enough power to keep Toronto lit for days on end. The result is a batting average we can usually find around .300, and 41 homers last year (a career best). As long as Donaldson continues to rake like he has for the past few seasons he is going to be up in the MVP discussion every year.
On the surface, this season has been more of the same for JD. Seven bombs already (extrapolating over 600 plate appearances means he’s on pace for another 40+ homer year) and batting average around .300 again. His wRC+ of 193 beats out last year’s career best by 39 points on top of that.
But if we look deeper into this, he hasn’t been the same Josh Donaldson. His strikeout rate is 26.3%, a huge jump from his career 18.5%. Part of this is fueled by more swinging strikes, up to 12.9% from a career 10.1%. And we’re also seeing a change in his batted ball profile, with heavily declining grounders (43.7% career to 30.5% in 2016) and increase in fly balls (38.5% to 45.8%) – although this is more of an encouraging sign than the strikeouts.
To get some insight into what’s happening to him so far in the young season, let’s look at how differently he’s being pitched to this year compared to his career trends:
The obvious part here is how much more pitchers are attacking inside the strike zone (both charts are from the catcher’s point of view). This kind of approach on him would suggest that he chases and/or whiffs there a lot, but the data says otherwise; nothing is too much of an outlier to draw any conclusions about. And if you think that perhaps he isn’t very good at hitting around that part of the zone, you would also be wrong. Look at his isolated power heatmap:
Low and inside is where he has the most success, which is completely counterintuitive towards how he’s been pitched this year.
Look at a video of him homering on a pitch down and in, to get an idea of how he has so much success here:
He gets such a large amount of separation between his legs thanks to his aggressive leg kick, he’s able to lower his torso to match the location of the pitch. In addition, his hips are able to clear quickly, opening his body up early and allowing more range of motion on the inside plane. His reactions are quick enough to do this even on fastballs, which is simultaneously scary for pitchers, and exciting for us fans.
This season we haven’t seen any difference in his swing, as shown below with his grand slam against the Red Sox:
Same leg kick, same hip clearance, same swing plane.
Even though he crushes pitches inside, we can see why pitchers have tried staying inside on Donaldson some by looking at his home run heatmap. He’s so successful in all areas of the zone, but does so much damage on the outside part as well, that they are almost forced to try and get him to chase inside.
While this may not seem like such a great approach since he’s off to such a good start, it has worked in some regards. His chase rate has gone up thanks to less pitches in the zone, up to 30.1% from last year’s 24.7%. And maybe thanks to some game theory effect, his whiff rates in the zone have increased too. This results in more strikeouts for Donaldson, although there have been enough misses on the pitchers’ end that it is also resulting in a career year production wise.
In the end, what we are seeing is a hitter selling out more often to hit for power, and pitchers trying to find some method to dampen the power output. The problem for the pitchers is that Donaldson covers so much of the plate that it’s nearly impossible to keep him from producing. The strikeouts are good for opposing teams, but they are playing with fire by trying to live so close to his sweet spots.
Fantasy wise, this shouldn’t be a concern short term for Donaldson owners. He’s getting pitches that he can hit a mile, and he’s responding by doing so. The strikeouts look like they might stay, and that could hurt his batting average some (his .300 average this year has been kept afloat by an inflated BABIP, something hard to sustain). Although he will be fine and elite again this year, long term there might be some concern; once players start striking out so much, the book is out. He’s still a great enough hitter to counter the current approach, but as pitchers continue to wear down his armor he may not be able to keep at this level.
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