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GRANT COHN: A's discover modern-day Kirby Puckett

  • Oakland Athletics' Josh Donaldson (20) hits a double off Los Angeles Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson to score Yoenis Cespedes against the Los Angeles Angels during the third inning of a baseball game in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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.

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