Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/28/14
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In last night’s Athletics-Rangers extra-inning affair, Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson went 4-for-5 with two doubles. Oakland lost, but it was not Donaldson’s fault that no one was on base when he came up to the plate, or that the As only drove him in once of the four times he was on base himself. Donaldson’s 2013 performance so far has been excellent. Donaldson has been the team’s primary third baseman while also starting three games at catcher, his original position in the minors, and has hit .315/.387/.523 (152 wRC+). Voros’ (McCracken’s) Law states that “any major league hitter can hit just about anything in 60 at bats.” Donaldson is beyond that threshold: 168 plate appearances so far this season. A sample of 168 is not exactly huge (to put it mildly), but there might be something to glean from it. On Monday, Carson mentioned Donaldson as one of the hitters who Steamer Rest-of-the-Season projection had changed most significantly for the positive from his pre-season projections. That in itself is encouraging for As fans, but what can we glean ourselves that might indicate improvement in just a quarter-season of play. Unsurprisingly, Donaldson’s BABIP is high (.353) — much higher than he had ever shown in the majors, and higher than just any season he had spent in the high minors, and he was in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League for AAA. That in itself might lead us to mostly dismiss his 2013 performance as a fluke. For those who like batted ball approaches to BABIP, Donaldson’s line drive rate, isn’t really any better in 2013 than it was in 2012 when he hit .241/.289/.398 (90 wRC+) over 294 major-league plate appearances for Oakland. But that is not all that has changed. Donaldson is hitting for more power this season, sporting a .208 ISO. Donaldson did manage nine homers in less than 300 plate appearance last year, and that is probably one of the main things pushing the As to give him the starting spot at third base this year. Looking at his home runs per plate appearance ending in contact (HR/AB-K+SF), though, his rate is almost exactly the same as last year — about four percent. His home runs this year have actually been shorter and slower off the bat than in 2012, according to ESPN Home Run Tracker. The real driver of Donaldson’s isolated power jump is the increase of doubles and triples on balls in play — he has 14 doubles and one triple already this season in 168 plate appearances, while having 16 doubles last year in almost 300 plate appearances. While that increase is initially promising, extra-base hits on balls in play is about as subject to random fluctuation as BABIP (and the one 2013 triple is also skewing his ISO at the moment — Donaldson is not a triples guy), so we should be cautious before seeing labeling this as improvement for Donaldson this early in the season. If Donaldson’s improved power and BABIP so far in 2013 are reliant on small samples of things especially subject to random variation, there is another dimension to his game this year that might be a more indicative positive harbinger. Although Donaldson’s excellent observed 2013 performance so far has been based very much on an increase on balls in play and how many bases they go for, that is not all that is going on. Another big factor Donaldson’s impressive performance has been his improved plate discipline. Donaldson took walks in the minors, but never at an amazing rate, and was absolutely dreadful in that respect in the majors before this season at around five percent. This year, he is up over 10 percent. Donaldson is also striking out in under 16 percent of his plate appearances — much better than one would expect given his prior track record in the majors and minors. While strikeout and walk rates are their own best predictors, the relevant plate discipline statistics also indicate improvement: Donaldson is swinging at fewer pitchers overall than he did last year and fewer outside the zone, too, which supports the better walk rate; he is also making contact at a much better rate, which is why is is striking out less frequently. This is particularly good news because while, as we have seen, BABIP and extra-base hits per hits in play can fluctuate a great deal, relatively speaking, walk rates correlate quite high among the various peripherals, and strikeout rate correlates highest of all. Although it is still early for all of this, Donaldson’s improvements in avoiding strikeouts and taking walks may be real. Even if Donaldson has not really improved in terms of his power and ability to get hits on balls in play, the walks have their own value, and the improved contact will enable him to not only get more hits, but more extra-base hits (in play and out of the park) even if his raw power has not improved. A hitters can’t hit for extra bases if he doesn’t make contact. Josh Donaldson is very unlikely to finish the season with a 152 wRC+. He does seem to be a better hitter than in the past, though. Donaldson’s plate discipline has been one of several keys to his success so far this year, and it is the main one to watch to see if that success will continue.
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