A’s discover their modern-day Kirby Puckett

Here is my Saturday column on the A’s third baseman, Josh Donaldson.

OAKLAND – Six hours before the A’s played the Mariners Friday night, A’s hitting coach Chili Davis and I sat on stools in an empty hallway outside the empty A’s clubhouse, and he explained to me the similarities between Josh Donaldson and Kirby Puckett as right-handed sluggers.

You’ve probably heard of Donaldson by now. He’s the A’s cleanup hitter and third baseman, and he’s having an All Star season. He was a catcher at the University of Auburn, but he switched to third base last year and won a starting job with the A’s.

Puckett was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and 10-time All Star outfielder for the Twins during the ’80s and ’90s. Davis played with Puckett in 1991 and 1992. If anyone can compare Puckett and Donaldson, it’s Davis.

The A’s had sent Donaldson down to the minors twice in 2012 because he wasn’t hitting. But they called him up in August, and since Aug. 14 Donaldson is hitting .301 with 17 home runs and 66 RBIs. He’s one of the best third basemen in baseball, the best third baseman in the Bay Area. Since last August, Donaldson mostly has been going very good but last week he had a mini-slump – just three hits in 29 at bats. More on that in a moment.

Davis is a brilliant analytical thinker, and your jaw drops when you hear how honest his answers are, but if you want his time, you’ve got to catch him when he arrives at the ballpark six or seven hours before a night game. A hitting coach is the hardest working coach on a staff. He spends hours before every game watching film of the opposing pitcher and creating individual game plans for Donaldson and the 12 other A’s hitters.

So, when you get 10 minutes of Davis’ time, as I did, you step aside and let him speak for himself:

“The similarity between Kirby and J.D. is their balance, that leg kick, that free-swinging mentality,” said Davis as he sat on the stool. “I think Kirby may have been a little more under control than J.D., but they both have the ability – even with all of that movement with the leg kick – to pick up and read pitches.”

I asked, “Puckett was a great opposite-field home run hitter, does Donaldson have that ability?”

“He does,” Davis said. “That goes right along with what I’m saying. Kirby worked on that. Kirby played a game in batting practice called ‘Optimum.’ He would say: ‘Last round: Home run game. Let’s see who can hit the most home runs.’ His rule was that you can’t pull it. Anybody can pull a home run, but if you want to be a home-run guy, see how many you can knock out of the ballpark the other way. It was a great game to play because it keeps you on the ball longer and it keeps you convicted to driving the ball the other way.

“Kirby and J.D. both are collision hitters.” Chili sat up straight, pretending to hold a bat and stare down a pitcher.

“There are different kinds of hitting styles,” he said. “Take Vernon Wells. You watch how he hit in (the Yankees) series (1-for-13), and to me, that’s more of a reactive hitting style. You’re waiting to see where the ball is and then you just react to it.

“Then there is mechanical hitting, where a guy’s up there and everything looks pretty, but he’s not really on the pitches. It’s more mechanics he’s thinking about.

“And then, there’s what I call collision hitting. When a guy puts his foot down and lands, he’s going to collide with something. He’s going to hit something and drive something hard. I was more of a controlled collision hitter. I wanted to see what I was hitting and I knew what I wanted to hit, but when I got there I wanted to get there with some force behind it. I think J.D. is more of a collision hitter, and the more control we can add to that, the better.

Davis stopped. “It’s funny you want to talk about that right now,” he said staring at me, shifting his weight on the stool, letting go of his imaginary bat. “It’s something I need to talk to Donaldson about today.

“When he’s going good – when any hitter’s going good – I just let them come in and do their work, because they’re sticking to a routine. When I see that he’s changing something, I want to ask why. Why are we changing that? What are we trying to feel here?

“What I think is kind of going away,” said Davis, rubbing his head in thought, “is his ability to read pitches. When he’s going good, he’s reading pitches. He’s seeing rotation. He’s seeing where pitches are going. And that foot. He gets it up and when he recognizes the pitch, the foot lands where he thinks the ball is going. If he lands too soon, then he commits to an area and he can’t get to other pitches. Once you land, you’re firing. The more-timely landing with the front foot keeps him on pitches, keeps him seeing curveballs, changeups, in and out, up and down a lot better.”

With Davis’ guidance, Donaldson should rediscover his inner-Kirby quickly. But how did Donaldson discover his inner-Kirby in the first place? What changed for him last season?

I asked Donaldson that question Thursday morning at his locker: “Chili talked about Puckett a little bit,” he said, “not necessarily on a mechanical level. The biggest thing I was doing wrong was I was allowing the pitcher to dictate my at-bats the entire time. Sometimes I’d be hitting the ball solid, but maybe it was a pitch that wasn’t my strength. I’ve been doing a better job of zoning up pitches.”

Davis agrees. “He’s more under control. I liked J.D.’s swing from the time I saw it last year in spring training. What hurt him – which isn’t a bad thing – he was trying to be more like Jose Bautista. Every time we talked about hitting, he talked about what Jose Bautista did, which is fine. I emulated Eddie Murray as a switch hitter. I took little pieces of Eddie Murray and put it into a style of my own, and then I became the hitter that I was. And I think that’s what J.D.’s doing this year. He’s taking a little bit of what he likes about Jose Bautista, and he’s applying it to his body structure and his style, and so he’s becoming more of a Josh-Donaldson-style hitter.”

Bautista is a right-handed collision-hitter with a leg kick, but he almost never hits the ball to right field. Donaldson thrives when he drives the ball to all fields, like Kirby Puckett used to do.

So Donaldson has an inner-Kirby and an inner-Jose, and they’re at war with each other. If Donaldson is going to have a long and successful career, his inner-Kirby must win out.

Grant Cohn writes two sports columns per week for the Press Democrat’s website. He also writes the “Inside the 49ers” blog. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.

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