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Watching the final game of the Yankees - A's series last week, which featured one of the game's finest pitchers in Masahiro Tanaka, I had a thought during Josh Donaldson's final at-bat against the Japanese hurler. After he struck out to finish 0-3 against Tanaka, my mind travelled back to the ALDS game 5s of the past two years. It's no secret the A's crashed out against a dominant Verlander in both 2013 & 2014, just like it's no secret that Josh Donaldson was almost entirely absent in both of those very important games: 1-7, 0 BB, 3 K (with all 3 of those Ks coming in 2013's game 5). 7 at-bats is obviously an incredibly small sample size, especially for an up-and-coming player getting his first taste of the postseason. However, for what Donaldson means to the A's, there were certainly quiet rumblings of disappointment among the fan base.
Verlander is very good; it seems he's especially good in high leverage situations when his team needs him. Josh Donaldson is also very good, posting 7.7 WAR last year in 158 games. This year, Donaldson has been even better, posting 3.4 WAR through just 62 games and asserting himself in the conversation of the best overall players in baseball. A sizable portion of that WAR comes from the plus defense he plays, but his bat is what he's known for: since getting called up from the minors on August 14th, 2012 (the point at which his consensus "breakout" started), he's batted .291/.377/.509 with a wRC+ of 148 (which means that Donaldson has created 48% more runs than a league average player). Only one player has higher WAR in 2013 and 2014 combined (Mike Trout), and only nine other players have higher wRC+. Josh Donaldson is an elite defensive and offensive player by many metrics.
After watching Donaldson's at-bats against Tanaka, I started wondering how he fares against other elite pitchers in the game, having an unproven hunch he might struggle against them. We know that most everyone struggles against elite pitching, as that is generally the very definition of elite pitching; however, there's the larger question of just how much impact elite pitching has on hitting statistics, and how elite hitters fare against elite pitching. One might assume that elite hitters are better able to succeed against elite pitching. Looking at Donaldson's statistics, you wouldn't think that is the case.
Pulling data from the start of the 2013 season, I've identified some of the "elite" pitching that Donaldson has gone up against. I've tried to identify pitchers he has faced most often in terms of plate appearances - fortunately (for our sake at least), those pitchers he's seen most often are also elite arms in his division, like Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, and Hisashi Iwakuma. All pitchers on this list are ranked in the top 15 for xFIP for 2013-2014 (minimum 160 innings pitched) with the exception of Verlander (77th) & Lester (41st). I've included them as their FIP rankings are in the top 40, and because I've already used Verlander as a benchmark above. Here are Donaldson's statistics for 2013 & 2014 against some of the best arms in the game, with his total statistics overall in the final line for reference:
These figures don't include the 2012 and 2013 postseason series against the Tigers, which actually helps Donaldson's case. However, let's get the small sample size disclaimer out of the way before we continue. 113 plate appearances is about a month's worth of full-time hitting statistics, which is not a tremendous sample to draw from, but not insubstantial either. What's clear from these numbers is that Donaldson really struggles against elite arms, posting awful strikeout and walk rates and severely depressed average, on base, and power numbers (just 7 extra base hits in 104 at-bats).
One larger question we have to answer is whether Donaldson's drop in production vs. elite pitching is congruent with the standard drop of production any hitter would expect when going up against this level of competition. To find that out, I combined all of the batting-against statistics for these 12 pitchers for all of 2013 & 2014, a total of 12,534 plate appearances, which gives us a "league average" line vs. these pitchers. The findings? These elite arms are really good. Big surprise, right? In fact, the league strikeout and walk rates against these pitchers is very close to Donaldson's rates, with the walk rate exactly the same. Here are Donaldson's numbers vs. the elite pitchers, his overall numbers vs. all competition, and then the league average line vs. the elite arms:
Even though we're looking at the best pitchers in baseball, these statistics were still a bit surprising to me, as these league-wide walk and strikeout rates are abysmal from a hitter's perspective. How does Donaldson's slash line compare to the league average? Again, let's take a look:
We know that Donaldson's poor BB and K rates fit tidily within the standards of the league line, as seen in the first graph, but his slash lines tell us that he's been far worse than the rest of the league against these elite pitchers in the limited plate appearances we're looking at. Shouldn't we expect a player of his offensive caliber to fare better than league average against this level of competition?
The answer is not necessarily. Donaldson's approach at the plate has a large bearing on the fact that he struggles against elite pitching. He is not a contact hitter, posting below average marks in swinging strike percentage, contact percentage, and Z-Contact percentage. In fact, he has changed his approach over the past calendar year specifically to try to hit more home runs, resulting in an almost 5% spike in his strikeout rate from 2013 to 2014 (16.5% to 21.1%), but also increasing his home run per fly ball rate by almost 7 points to 17.3%, an elite mark for someone who plays half of their games in one of the most pitching friendly ballparks in baseball. Coupled with an increase in his walk rate, Donaldson's run creation output has benefitted from Chili Davis' hitting instruction, sitting on pitches he is more likely to drive and swinging hard at the expense of a lower average and higher strikeout rate. Donaldson batted .301 in 2013 with an inflated BABIP (.333), but with his change of approach, he projects somewhere in the .270 range moving forward.
Donaldson is the profile of a hitter that may be more apt to struggle against the elite pitching in the league due to the simple fact that elite pitchers tend to have makeups consisting of low walks and high strikeouts. For example, against "Power" pitchers (pitchers that are in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks), Donaldson has a career line of .210/.316/.356, showing that he struggles with pitchers who have strikeout potential, whether elite or not. He's not alone in being a top offensive player that struggles against power pitching in relation to his overall performance: the benevolent baseball god Mike Trout slashes a fairly pedestrian (for him) .269/.379/.473 against the high strikeout arms.
The most important point to remember when looking at these statistics is that Josh Donaldson is currently one of the best players in baseball, regardless of his past performance versus elite pitching. He is a player that has enjoyed only a year and a half of sustained high-level performance and is continuing to make adjustments in hopes of greater success, which could completely alter his future at bats versus these elite arms I've highlighted. However, my gut tells me he may always struggle with these pitchers due to his approach at the plate, which trades contact for power - an Oakland A's team-wide trait. It bears further scrutiny in the future for his potential playoff success, as he will obviously face more elite pitching in October when the average arms have gone home for the offseason. Will Donaldson and the Oakland A's home run-centric approach carry them to a deep playoff run against the best arms in the game? Fortunately for us, it looks like we're going to find out.
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