As year two of Josh Donaldson’s time in Minnesota spiraled out of control and his team sank down the standings, the third baseman became a frequent and convenient target for people letting out their frustration. That comes with the territory of being the big money free agent on an underperforming club.
The thing is, at least for the first month and change of the 2021 season, Donaldson was not deserving of that criticism.
Donaldson returned to the Twins lineup on April 14 from an injured hamstring suffered rounding first base after lacing a double in his first at bat of the season. Since returning, he has been a mainstay in the Twins lineup while seemingly everyone else on the Twins roster has gotten hurt. Not only was Donaldson healthy for the most extended stretch of his Twins tenure, he was productive.
By May 8, Donaldson was hitting .290 / .375 / .507 in 80 plate appearances. Nine of his 20 hits had gone for extra bases and he had taken nearly as many walks (10) as he had strikeouts (11). At that point, his .379 wOBA and 145 wRC+ both ranked fourth-best among all third baseman with at least 80 plate appearances. Those numbers were backed up by some of the most impressive underlying stats in baseball. At that point, his Statcast summary page was all sorts of shades of red (those are good) and his average exit velocity (93.4 mph), barrel rate (16.5%), and hard hit rate (55.1%) all ranked better than the 90th percentile among all players with 80+ PAs.
Despite Donaldson’s strong contributions at the plate, the Twins were just 12-20 and 6.5 games back in the standings.
The Twins were rained out on Mother’s Day (May 9) in Detroit and had May 10 as a scheduled off day. When they returned to the field on May 11th Donaldson started to slump. Over his next 83 plate appearances, through May 30, Donaldson hit only .162 / .277 / .279, good for .254 wOBA and just 61 wRC+. His batting average on balls in play in that stretch was a paltry .164, suggesting some bad luck, but that suppressed number was also made more more believable by significant declines in his average exit velocity (90.0 mph) and hard hit rate (40.4%). Those underlying stats checked in nowhere near the 90th-plus percentiles they were earlier in the season.
Donaldson’s slump, combined with a couple of brutal errors in the field during it, did little to slow the Twins’ free fall in the standings. For that stretch at least, Donaldson was deserving of Twins’ Territory’s frustrations. At the end of the day on May 30, the club was 21-31 and 11.0 games back in the standings.
So, what changed from his excellent start?
As is often the case over a long season, the opponents made adjustments in their approach against Donaldson.
Let’s start by looking at his production against the three main pitch type groupings — fastballs, breaking balls, and offspeed pitches — through May 8:
You can see clearly that Donaldson’s hot stretch to begin the season, especially in terms of exit velocity and extra base hits, was fueled by production against fastballs.
With almost a month’s worth of data, opposing pitchers looked for an adjustment. You might expect, given the macro trends in pitching across the game, that their answer would be to throw Donaldson a lot more spin. His numbers in the table above against breaking balls would merit that approach. But that’s not what happened.
Here is the same table, but for the May 9-May 30 stretch:
Curiously, pitchers went after Donaldson even more with the hard stuff. And it suddenly started working.
Statcast groups four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs, sinkers, and cutters together as the “fastballs” you see in the tables above. We can also break the stats down by those different types. Doing this gives us a clue as to why the opponents’ adjustment to Donaldson was to throw him more fastballs.
This table shows his results against the different fastball varieties through May 8:
This makes clear that much of Donaldson’s success against “fastballs” really came from destroying sinkers and two-seamers.
When pitchers adjusted, they started throwing him a greater proportion of four-seam fastballs. Here’s the same data for the stretch May 8 through May 30:
Compared to the table above, you can see the big uptick in four-seamers and a slight uptick in cutters, both coming at the expense of the sinking fastballs. Donaldson’s numbers against those four-seamers more than justified that approach.
Not only did pitchers feed him more four-seamers, they also modified how they went about doing that. Parker Hageman at TwinsDaily noted on Twitter earlier this week that Donaldson’s slump came on when pitchers started to attack him with those fastballs up and away.
We can see that change borne out in these Statcast pitch location heat maps of four seam fastballs thrown to Donaldson. First, through May 8:
Now May 9 to May 30:
In the first map the four-seamers are more distributed around the zone with only a small area showing deep red. In the second map those four-seamers were much more frequently clustered up and on the outside edge, shown clearly by the much larger and clustered deep red areas.
These pitching adjustments served to limit Donaldson in two critical ways.
First, as was noted by our own Zach Koenig last weekend, Donaldson suddenly started popping pitches up.
For the full season, Donaldson has hit 12 balls in play that have been classified as popped up. All of them have been caught for outs in or around the infield. But 10 of those 12 occurred in May. During his slump, his average batted ball launch angle against four seam fastballs sky rocketed to 42 degrees (it was 13 degrees through May 8). Five of the popups came against fastballs and the other seven came against breaking pitches that had Donaldson off balance. Like this:
I think being fooled that badly by a breaking ball in the zone is related to the fastball type and location adjustments. By raising their fastball targets and taking them to the outside corner, opposing pitchers also helped their breaking balls, because the different pitch offerings now tunneled together more effectively. This served to make it harder for Donaldson to discern between the two and messed up his timing.
This wasn’t a case of him suddenly being unable to put the ball in play or a breakdown in his approach at the plate. Throughout his slump, he stayed consistent in his rate of swings and misses and plate discipline. Per FanGraphs, his swinging strike rate through May 8 was 11.1%. From May 9 to May 30 it was 10.7%. His O-Swing% (or rate of swinging at pitches out of the strike zone) was 26.1% before and 28.7% after. Over this small of a sample, those differences are mostly noise. During his slump he drew 12 walks and struck out 14 times (compared to the 10 and 11, respectively, I showed you earlier).
He was still doing a lot of things right, but was more frequently caught in between the two main pitch type groups. Unable to catch up to and drive the fastballs, his batted ball profile and authority declined. Off balance against breaking balls, he popped them up more frequently. This was especially true during a 3 day stretch against Cleveland and Baltimore (May 23-25) when Donaldson popped out 4 times in 14 plate appearances.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for him (and those of us watching) is that a majority of those popups came on hittable pitches that often end up in the outfield seats:
Those middle-middle sliders usually get smashed. But, Donaldson was off just enough that he was missing those hittable pitches.
Now, this week, Donaldson has stopped missing those kinds of pitches. Starting with the game in Baltimore on Memorial Day, Donaldson is 9-18 with five extra base hits (2 homers) in 23 PAs thanks to an overall average exit velocity of 100.4 mph. Better yet, he’s getting on top of fastballs again. Six of those hits have come against various fastballs, including three off four-seamers. Altogether, he’s averaged 98.8 mph exit velocity with an average launch angle of 9 degrees against fastballs in that stretch.
So, what did he change?
At 6’1”, Donaldson is about average in height for a MLB player. But, he has always batted from a crouched stance, making him shorter than his height at the plate. Here’s a screen grab of his crouched stance as the pitcher starts down the mound during the series in Cleveland in late May:
Now here is a picture of him at a similar time in the pitcher’s delivery on Memorial Day in Baltimore:
The camera angles aren’t quite the same and the changes he’s made don’t leap off the screen, but Donaldson is standing a little taller in second look. In that game, he had three hits, including two doubles.
Now here he is Thursday night in Kansas City, when he homered twice:
This camera angle is more similar to the one from Cleveland above. It’s hard to know with certainty from these angles, but it looks like he’s also slightly opened his stance (especially in his shoulders) compared to the first look above.
As pitchers started working him higher and away that more crouched stance had Donaldson starting low and working up to the ball on high pitches. Hence all the popups.
Now, standing a little taller seems designed to help him attack those high pitches from a more equal plane. Opening up his upper half seems designed to give him a better look at the incoming pitches to help his ability to discern between similar looking fastballs and breaking balls. It also allows him to more effectively take those away pitches to the opposite field.
These are not major adjustments. But the margins at this level are small and the changes do not have to be large to make an impact. The changes he’s made seem to have made a difference and helped Donaldson respond to the adjustments the pitchers made against him in May. We will see if they continue to pay off or if it is just a small sample aberration. In the meantime, the opposing pitchers will get to take another turn responding to Donaldson’s adjustments with some of their own. That’s the game.
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.