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Josh Donaldson added even more power

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Josh Donaldson improved in the one area of his game he was already excellent at, but the Toronto Blue Jays aren't complaining.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

A month ago today, the Toronto Blue Jays were fourth place in the American League East, and not just by a couple games. No, the Blue Jays were sputtering into fourth at a whopping eight games back of the then-first place New York Yankees. Then they made their move.

At the start of play today, the Blue Jays are in first place by 1.5 games over the ‘evil empire’. Quite the flip of the switch, aye? For some recent perspective think back to 2011. As a Boston Red Sox fan, I will die inside find it tough to recall all those painfully suppressed memories of watching your team manage to find a way to prove wrong the 99.7 percent chance they had of making the playoffs. I mean, it’s not like they had a one in 278 million chance of missing out the way they did. Was that meant by the baseball gods to be foreshadowing to the impending future that offered three last place finishes in the next four years? Granted there was that whole ‘2013 World Series’ thing thrown in there, but who knows. You’re supposed to just bottle that stuff up deep down, right?

Anyway, what was I talking about again? Oh yeah, so do you remember that incredible come back by the Tampa Bay Rays to steal the Wildcard spot? Well in that case, the Rays came back from a nine game deficit to win the spot by a game. With their current lead, that means the Blue Jays have done nearly the exact same turn around for the division lead in around the same amount of time (minus, of course, the abysmally low playoff odds and dramatic final day theatrics).

Jays playoff odds

So what has been the reason for the turnaround?

For starters, the pitching staff has been fantastic. What was once seen as the biggest weakness for a Blue Jays team that could outhit any team in baseball now has begun to carry their own weight. Going from a 4.18 ERA, 4.18 FIP, and 4.15 xFIP over the first half of the season to the 2.78 ERA, 3.55 FIP, and 3.98 xFIP that the Jays have posted since starting their charge. The acquisition of David Price helped immensely, not to mention that decent stretches from R.A. Dickey and Marco Estrada also aided the cause. Although Dickey has started to struggle in his last two starts—as 10 earned runs in 10 innings and a 6.19 xFIP might suggest—he was a big part in righting this ship.

As for the offense, there is just one batter I’m going to focus on. Sure I could focus on how Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Ryan Goins, or any of the other Blue Jay hitters have had a good second half. I could. Then again, I could go to the moon. I could be elected president. I could play left field better than Hanley Ramirez. Ok, so that last one might not be true. But wouldn’t it be more fun to look at Josh Donaldson, anyway?

That would be, of course, the same Josh Donaldson that sat down with Eno Sarris of FanGraphs to talk about hitting and his swing in general. As you might’ve guessed, that is also the same Josh Donaldson that loves to track down pop-ups in foul territory—as discussed by Neil Weinberg of FanGraphs and Beyond the Box Score. Those two articles are just the tip of the Donaldson iceberg, which should lead you to the conclusion that he’s pretty popular. In case you don’t believe me, check out how Donaldson hit baseballs in the first half of 2015:

Josh Donaldson--Destroyer of Baseballs
Part of Season PA AB BB% K% BABIP wOBA wRC+ fWAR
First Half 394 355 7.6% 19.3% .317 .378 142 4.2

Donaldson did an awesome all-around job of hitting. As a matter of fact, he finished 5th in the majors in fWAR among position players and within the top 20 in wOBA, ISO, and wRC+. That goes to show that while his offense was very good, his game overall was better. That is just what the Blue Jays hoped to get out of him, anyway. Donaldson has always been an outstanding all-around player, so it’s no surprise that he continued to be following his trade from Oakland this past offseason. If anything, the Jays—and baseball world in general—assumed that his power numbers would go up in the new hitters’ ballpark he would call home.

So what is your immediate first thought when looking at his offensive numbers? Is it that he should’ve been doing much better? Well if that’s the case, you’re in luck. This is an actual gif of Josh Donaldson post all-star break:

via GIPHY

How do you build on an already elite offensive output? You hit the ball even harder, farther, and more often. That is exactly what Donaldson has been able to do. It is this great offensive output that the Blue Jays have been glad to see. A fortification to the heart of their lineup, the same lineup that was keeping the only team north of the boarder afloat, is something they might not have expected but are definitely benefiting from.

In fact, here is Donaldson’s 2nd half in chart form:

The Strong get Stronger
Part of Season PA AB BB% K% BABIP wOBA wRC+ fWAR
Second Half 165 137 14.5% 18.2% .299 .450 192 2.8

If you look close, you can see that nearly every offensive statistic for Donaldson has increased. Although it is in about half the sample-size, it is still a sign we are seeing a better hitter than the great one we saw before. The transformation from great to awe-inspiring is not one that should be overlooked either, and is largely thanks to the extra power Donaldson has found.

Take, for example, Donaldson’s average exit velocity over every month this season. It has noticeably increased on fly balls and line drives (around 5.5 mph for both), while also improving against harder pitches (around 5 mph). A reason as to why Donaldson is hitting the ball harder might lie in where he has actually hit the ball lately. The former first rounder has pulled the ball nearly 20 percent (!!!) more in the second half of the season as opposed to the first—up to 52.7 percent from 35.6 percent. It is this pulling that is why he is hitting the ball harder. Obviously hitters, more often than not, hit the ball harder to their own pull fields.

These type of improvements have lead Donaldson to not hit near as many singles. In the first half, 58.65 percent (61 out of 104) of the corner mans’ hits were singles, 21.15 percent (22 out of 104) were doubles, and 20.19 percent (21 out of 104) were home runs. In the second half, 40.47 percent (17 out of 42) of Donaldson’s hits were singles, 28.57 percent (12 out of 42) were doubles, and 30.95 percent (13 out of 42) were home runs. That is just a fancy way of saying Donaldson started hitting more doubles and homeruns, which further points to an increase in power. And that's not to mention the notable jump from a .239 ISO to a .372 ISO in the second half, which pretty much tells the same story as the stuff above.

Overall, Donaldson went from stats like wOBA and wRC+ that were in the top 20 and managed to bring them into the top five after the all-star break. What is even crazier is that Donaldson’s BABIP has only been .299 after July 17th. His career BABIP? An oddly normal .302—meaning that this high performance is perfectly sustainable. That has to strike fear in the hearts of opposing teams: not only the thought that he could sustain this type of performance, but the prospect of what it would look like for him to truly outperform.

The slugger currently has a 7.0 fWAR, which leads position players in the American League and is second only to fellow baseball-destroyer/hair-flipper Bryce Harper’s 7.3 fWAR in the National League. The time to poke fun at Buster Olney for using RBI’s to justify Donaldson being better than Trout has passed, and it is time to seriously consider him as a possible winning candidate. Obviously Donaldson’s 0.1 fWAR lead doesn’t justify an outright victory, as WAR was never meant to be a total outright end-all total. Being that close just means that Trout and Donaldson are on the same level—and a closer look should be had.

So call it an MVP push. Call it a contribution to the Blue Jays playoff push. Call it what you will. With the help of some more power—which maybe he found under a cloud or a rainbow or something, since he is the ‘Bringer of Rain’—Josh Donaldson has stepped his game up in the second half. And for the Toronto Blue Jays, the timing could not have been better. Who knows, maybe he could even lend some of his excess power to fellow teammate Ben Revere.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.