Josh Donaldson has never been better than he is right now

Nick Ashbourne
Josh Donaldson is doing quite literally everything right during his current hot streak. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Josh Donaldson has never had a stretch at the plate like he’s having right now.

That’s saying a lot for a guy who was an MVP two years ago and arguably occupied the position of “best player in baseball not named Mike Trout” for the last five years, but it’s the truth.

In August so far he’s hitting .400/.530/1.000 with a 282 wRC+ and nine home runs. For context, he’s never had a month where’s topped a 214 wRC+ and he’s surpassed nine home runs just twice, maxing out at 11 in August 2015. He’s got 12 games to top that, and while there are no certainties in this game, betting against a career-high would be a poor investment. Even if you wanted to specify identical 15-game chunks, he’s still never topped this one by wRC+.

Via FanGraphs

In Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays he was a star once again, going 2-for-3 and scoring 60 percent of his club’s runs. He also went deep twice against righty killer – and wielder of one of the most devastating sliders in baseball – Chris Archer.

First he took a 3-1 breaking ball hung over the plate and took it to left on a line….

… then in the fifth he parked a first pitch fastball at the top of the zone in left-centre:

We know that Donaldson is talented, but what is he doing so right at this particular moment? It’s a question that no one seems to have a satisfying answer to.

“Nothing really [is different], when he’s getting a pitch he likes he’s not missing it now,” manager John Gibbons said of his slugger. “He’s no different from any of the other guys except he runs into fewer downturn than most.”

First baseman Justin Smoak is also subscribing to the “this is Josh Donaldson being Josh Donaldson” theory.

“The last two weeks or so it’s been amazing,” he said. “But obviously it something being here the last few years that you just expect.”

If Donaldson himself has a compelling explanation he certainly isn’t offering it up.

“I feel like I’m not missing pitches and I’m not fouling pitches back and I’ve been able to capitalize on some mistakes.”

All three of those quotations are more cliched than they are illuminating, there’s no doubt. However, in order to be illuminating there has to be something clear to illuminate. It’s not obvious that’s the case here.

It would be nice to point to a single factor and come to a tidy conclusion, but what makes this streak so impressive is that he’s doing everything better simultaneously. Here are some of the key factors contributing to Donaldson’s success:

Outstanding plate discipline

So far in April Donaldson has walked 13 times and struck out just seven. He’s only struck out more than he’s walked in a month three times in his career, barely managing it each time. Right now he’s almost doubling up. That’s especially impressive in a season where K’s have been a problem for him, as his strikeout rate is above league average for the first time since his 2013 breakout.

In recent weeks, however, it’s absolutely plummeted:

Via FanGraphs

His swing statistics really tell the story of his excellent decision making this month. In August he’s swung on pitches outside the zone just 19.5 percent of the time compared to the 28.8 percent league average. Meanwhile his in-zone swing percentage is 70.6, well above the 64.3 percent average. That’s aggressive selectivity at its best.

Getting the ball in the air

Like all power hitters Donaldson is at his best when he’s hitting flyballs consistently. However, unlike teammate Jose Bautista, he doesn’t have the kind of swing that leads to amazing flyball rates. Instead, he normally hits about as many in the air as on the ground.

This month he’s managed a 0.68 groundball-to-flyball ratio, his lowest of the season and best in a month since April 2016. Now he’s getting the ball in the air at a similar clip to his strong late-May, early-June run.

Via FanGraphs

When Donaldson gets the ball in the air good things happen for him, and right now he’s doing that consistently.

Using the whole field

Showing power to all fields is likely more of a symptom of things going well for Donaldson than a cause. However, everything you can do as a hitter to make yourself less predictable and more difficult to defend is a bonus. Opposing pitchers also notice an ability to hit the ball the other way with authority and know they can’t just stick to the outside corner.

Donaldson has 20 hits in August. Here’s how they’ve been distributed:

Via Baseball Savant

Donaldson is giving himself more chances to hit the ball by cutting down the K’s, getting the ball in the air more often when he does, and making use of the whole field when he manages that.

In short, he’s doing everything right.