Minneapolis, MN

Josh Donaldson is batting better than it seems

John Foley

Jonathan Dyer / USA TODAY Sports

Part way through the second year of a four year, $92-million contract, it’s fair to say things have not quite gone according to plan for Minnesota Twins’ third baseman Josh Donaldson. Now 35, his first year and change in Minnesota has had its ups and downs.

Donaldson played in just 28 of 62 possible games last season due to a recurring calf injury. The 2020 regular season was shortened to 60 games because of the ongoing pandemic and the injury also prevented him from playing in the Twins’ playoff series against Houston.

Donaldson rested the calf for about a month at the start of the offseason to let the injury heal. Then he worked with the Minnesota training staff on a number of different things to try to make his calf injury a thing of the past, including changing his running form to relieve some strain on his lower legs.

It was frustrating, then, when Donaldson injured himself running to second base immediately following his very first plate appearance of this season. Fortunately, this time the injury was not related to his calves. But, a mildly strained hamstring forced him back to the injured list and he missed 10 games while that leg injury healed.

Since returning, though, Donaldson has been a fixture in the Twins’ lineup. He was activated from the injured list on April 14. In total, he’s now played in 35 of the Twins’ 46 games, including starting 30 of them in the field at third base. This kind of workload suggests the Twins do not have lingering concerns about the condition and durability of his legs.

When he has been on the field he has been productive at the plate. Last season, Donaldson batted .222, which doesn’t look impressive by itself. But, when you factor in a strong .373 on-base percentage and solid .469 slugging percentage (thanks to six home runs), Donaldson was a well above average offensive player.

As a result of those numbers the comprehensive statistic weighted runs created plus (wRC+) pegged Donaldson about 29% better than league average with the bat. His 129 wRC+ ranked 8th-best among all third basemen who took at least 100 plate appearances.

So far in 2021, his production at the plate has remained solid. Through games played on Sunday, May 23, Donaldson was carrying a .241 batting average, .353 on base percentage, and .431 slugging percentage. He’d hit five home runs and seven doubles. Altogether, he had a 121 wRC+, a number that was tied for 11th-best among all third basemen with at least 100 plate appearances.

While Donaldson’s 2021 numbers are decent, his production has not quite been in line with what many might expect from the fourth highest paid third baseman in all of baseball. With the Twins off to a very slow start and falling in the standings, Donaldson has been the recipient of more than a little criticism from fans and bloggers in recent weeks.

But, traditional numbers like batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage are not accurately reflecting how well Donaldson is playing in 2021. Sometimes, especially early in a season, the results do not match the quality of the process.

Let me explain.

A hitter cannot control what happens once the ball leaves their bat. They cannot control where the fielders are positioned or if the weather impacts a batted ball (among many other things). All a hitter can do is put themselves in the best position to find sustained success by choosing good pitches to swing at and laying off pitches they don’t have a chance to hit hard. When given the opportunity, they can make the most of it by hitting the ball hard (preferably in the air).

This is what we mean when we talk about a hitter having a good approach. Hitters that do those things give themselves the best chances of finding success. But, they can’t control if the results will follow.

That seems to be what is happening for Donaldson in 2021. His process has been fantastic, but he has not been rewarded for it (yet).

Major League Baseball’s optical tracking technology, Statcast, captures data that helps us measure and quantify process-oriented statistics. These give us a deeper understanding of how a player is performing than we get by just looking at traditional, results-based counting stats.

Statcast measures all manner of stats that are informative in this way, including:

  • Chase rate: the percentage of batter’s swings that are on pitches out of the strike zone
  • Whiff %: the percentage of a batter’s swings that are misses
  • Exit velocity: the speed of the baseball as it comes off the bat
  • Hard hit %: the percentage of batted balls hit at 95 mph or more.
  • Launch Angle: the vertical angle at which the ball leaves a player's bat
  • Barrel %: A stat measuring how often a batter hits the ball with the optimal combinations of launch angle and exit velocity

By these more granular data points, we can see that Donaldson is doing a lot of things right at the plate, despite what his resulting stats show. Below is a chart that shows Donaldson’s percentile ranks among all MLB players in these types of categories. The higher the number value and the darker the red color shading, the better:

Data sourced from baseballsavant.mlb.com

There are a ton of high numbers and deep shades of red on that chart. Donaldson is among the top 10% to 20% of all players in hard hit rate, barrel %, and exit velocity. His chase and whiff rates are solidly above average. As a result, he’s walked almost as many times (21) as he has struck out (22), a good sign that he's picking the right pitches to go after.

Using the data above, MLB has developed a suite of “expected” statistics that tell us what a player’s numbers should look like based on their process data.

Donaldson’s expected batting average (xBA), based on exit velocities, launch angles, and batted ball types, is .289. His expected slugging percentage (xSLG), using the same inputs, is .556. His expected weighted on base average (xwOBA), an estimated version of weighted on base average (wOBA), a comprehensive rate statistic that measures a player’s total offensive value -- is .400.

In each case, Donaldson’s expected stats far exceed his actual results, as you can see below:

Data sourced from baseballsavant.mlb.com

Thanks to Statcast’s expected statistics leaderboard, we can see the gap between his wOBA and xwOBA is the 26th-largest out of 306 qualified players at all positions. The gap between his actual and expected batting averages is also 26th-largest, and his slugging percentage gap is 11th-largest.

In terms of the things he can control, it seems that Josh Donaldson is performing at a higher level than his traditional stats would suggest. He's swinging at strikes. He's laying off balls. He's hitting the ball hard with regularity. If he continues to stay on the field and maintains this high quality process at the plate, I expect that his actual results will soon follow.

In the meantime, Twins followers can trust that he’s performing at a level commensurate with his salary and position. His .400 xwOBA ranks third-best among all MLB third basemen and is in line with some of the best seasons of his career. Despite the picture painted by the surface level stats, Josh Donaldson is batting better than it seems.

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I analyze and write about the Minnesota Twins. My perspective has been developed from my lifelong fandom of the Twins, collegiate playing days as a pitcher, and graduate education in business and analytics. My goal is to use my experience in baseball and familiarity with its numbers and data to explain, inform, and educate about the events happening on and off the field.

Minneapolis, MN

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