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They were line drives in the box score

Josh Donaldson and two of the softest base hits you’ll ever see

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Last Friday night, in the Twins’ 7-3 victory over Detroit, Josh Donaldson batted second and went 2 for 4 with a walk, 2 strikeouts, and 2 runs scored. His two hits — a single and a double — were classified as line drives. It was the kind of solid box score line that we’ve come to expect from Donaldson. When he’s been in the lineup for the Twins, he’s produced (137 wRC+).

But, Donaldson’s night at the plate started off about as poorly as one can for a batter. After two trips to the plate, he was 0 for 2 with 2 strikeouts and it definitely didn’t look like he was on his way to the line he finished with.

In his first plate appearance, he struck out on four pitches and was blown away by a well-located, two-strike, 97 mph fastball from Tigers’ starter Tarik Skubal. In the third inning, Donaldson struck out on just three pitches, this time foul tipping a 95 mph Skubal heater into the catcher’s mitt.

In his first two trips to the plate, Donaldson saw 7 pitches and swung at 6 of them. Here’s the video of those two plate appearances:

He swung and missed at 3 and fouled off 3. None of the fouls were well struck or even remotely close to being hit into play. He was clearly having trouble picking up Skubal and appeared headed for a rough night.

But, being the good hitter that he is, he was able to turn his night around. He singled in the fifth in his third chance against Skubal. Then, he doubled in the 7th against right handed reliever Jose Cisnero and later came around to score. Finally, he led off the ninth with a walk from left-hander Daniel Norris and eventually would score again.

One of my favorite things about baseball is that things are often not how they appear. Through the course of the long season and hundreds of trips to the plate, strange things occur. Donaldson’s 2 for 4 on Friday night drew my attention because his two hits were not what you might think.

If you didn’t watch or listen to the game live and instead just checked the box score Saturday morning, you might have visualized those two hits in your mind as clean, hard, line drives. If you follow the Twins on MLB Gameday those batted balls were described this way in the play by play:

  • Josh Donaldson singles on a line drive to first baseman Miguel Cabrera
  • Josh Donaldson doubles (5) on a line drive to left fielder Akil Baddoo

This season Donaldson is running a line drive rate around 30% and is in the top 5 percent of all MLB players in average exit velocity, maximum exit velocity, and hard hit percentage. You’d be on solid ground assuming these two hits were smoked.

But two hard hit line drives from him wouldn’t be noteworthy enough for an entire post. No, my interest here is because these two hits are notable for how softly they were hit. It turns out that classifying these hits as “line drives” — while technically true based on their launch angle — is charitable. Neither ball was struck well.

You can see for yourself. Here’s the first one:

After swinging and missing on the first pitch of this at bat, Donaldson was fooled by a splitter down below the zone. He tried to hold up and check his swing, but instead accidentally made contact with the pitch. Here’s a screen grab of the point where Donaldson made contact.

You can see he was off balance, diving out in front of the plate, and trying to hold up. Somehow, that resulted in a perfectly placed single that went over Cabrera’s head and landed just onto the outfield grass behind first base. On the Twins’ TV broadcast Justin Morneau used a golf term to describe the hit, calling it a “wedge.”

The Statcast measurements on that base hit checked in at 54.2 mph exit velocity and 31 degrees launch angle. As a result, the ball traveled only 144 feet. That combination gave the ball a .254 expected batting average. But it was perfectly placed and dropped for a hit.

Let’s move on to the 7th inning double.

In this plate appearance, Donaldson took a slider for a ball on the first pitch. The second pitch was a 95.9 mph fastball, off the plate inside, and running in on his hands. Donaldson was able to yank it down the left field line but was jammed by the pitch’s location and movement. You can see the broadcast’s pitch marker graphic shows the pitch was way inside:

That ball came off his bat at 70.7 mph and at an angle of 19 degrees. It traveled just 175 feet. That combination gave it a .929 (!) expected batting average, which turns out to be nearly the perfect combination to get over the infielders and drop in front of outfielders.

The expected batting averages on both of these batted balls were higher than I expected when I saw those balls on the broadcast. They also made me curious.

How did the exit velocity of those batted balls rank in terms of successful hits in Donaldson’s career?

I queried the Statcast database and found that Donaldson has only one other hit in the Statcast era (since 2015) that had a lower exit velocity than the first example above.

On July 1, 2015, when he was a Toronto Blue Jay, he had a single against the Red Sox that had 45.5 mph exit velocity and traveled just 2 feet thanks to a minus-60 degrees launch angle. With that combination, I guessed that this one was probably a bunt (as unlikely as a bunt from Donaldson might be). A quick box score search on Baseball-Reference confirmed that this hit was, indeed, a bunt single. Unfortunately, I was not able to find video evidence of it.

So, at least in the Statcast era, Donaldson’s check swing, doink single on Friday night was the softest base hit of his career that involved a swing. The 70 mph double later in Friday’s game checked in as the 23rd-softest hit of Donaldson’s 657 tracked base hits in the Statcast database.

I then wondered where those batted balls ranked among all the batted balls in MLB this season?

I ran the same search in the Statcast database, but modified it to be league wide, and added filters to remove ground balls and any other ball that traveled less than 100 feet (to try to filter out bunts). In those results, I found that Donaldson’s first hit Friday night was the 6th-softest base hit of the 2021 season through games completed on May 10.

Royals’ catcher Salvado Perez had a 50 mph exit velocity single against the Twins on April 30. You can see that one, here. It had a .180 expected batting average and didn’t leave the infield, but it turned into a hit because the Twins were shifted to his pull side and no one covered first base.

Oddly enough, the Twins have been involved in 3 of the top 7 softest hit base hits so far this season. Texas’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa had a successful 55.8 mph exit velocity single that looked bizarrely similar to Donaldson’s, just the day before at Target Field.

Donaldson’s double in the 7th checked in as tied for the 280th-softest hit this season, out of 5,314 base hits that met the criteria above.

Now, I have no idea what the odds of two of the top five percent softest-hit base hits of the season happening in the same game, by the same player, are. I have no idea if you find the fact that they did happen in the same game, by the same player, interesting.

But, they were interesting to me. They stood out to me as great examples of how the unexpected can happen in baseball. We often lament the bad luck. (Especially in 2021 in relation to the Twins.) We tend to only remember those sure base hit liners that find gloves or those defensive plays that rob extra bases in the outfield. We tend to forget the duck snorts and jam shots that fall in and go our team’s way. But they happen, too. (even for the Twins in 2021!)

That’s part of the beauty of baseball. That’s also part of what makes great hitters like Josh Donaldson great. Perhaps actor Kevin Costner, playing veteran minor league catcher Crash Davis in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham articulated this part of the game best:

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.