Josh Donaldson's 2022 Season
By Chris O’Connor
July 9, 2022
When the Yankees acquired Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the offseason, much of the consternation was over the fact that it signaled that they were passing on big free agent shortstops, specifically Carlos Correa. When the Twins then used the money saved in the deal, including the two years and $50 million left on Donaldson’s contract, to sign Correa themselves, it made the trade look even worse for the most valuable team in baseball.
I thought it went a little under the radar that, while certainly a bit diminished from the 2015-2016 MVP-level, the 36 year-old Donaldson was still a very good, albeit injury-prone, player. In 318 games from 2019 through 2021, Donaldson slashed .251/.367/.398 with 69 homers, 177 RBI’s, and a 127 OPS+. Until very recently, though, this season, however, has been a disappointment.
On the positive side, Donaldson's health, a pretty big question mark heading into the year, has been relatively managed. While he has missed time due to COVID, shoulder inflammation, and suspension, he remains on pace to play in 124 games this season. I am sure that the Yankees would have taken that at the start of the season, especially considering their surplus of infield depth.
Outside of the last few games (this article was written before his three-game hot streak), Donaldson's production on the field has been a different story. In his first 62 games, Donaldson has slashed .222/.313/.373 with just 6 homers and a 99 WRC+. With D.J. LeMahieu and Anthony Rizzo having terrific seasons at the corners, Donaldson could be the odd man out of the postseason lineup if the Yankees add another bat at the trade deadline. What has gone wrong so far, and can it be fixed?
Donaldson’s batted ball profile can be interpreted in different ways. On one hand, many of the underlying metrics suggest that Donaldson is still taking his walks and hitting the ball hard. On the other hand, most of his numbers, from the traditional to the advanced, are down across the board from last season For example: Donaldson’s average velocity and hard-hit rate are currently in the 88th and 73rd percentile, respectively. Sounds good, right? Those numbers, however, are down fairly significantly from his recent past. His average exit velocity is down 2.5 mph from last season, when it was in the 99th percentile. Similarly, his hard-hit rate, which was in the 95th percentile last season, is down 7.7%. These are not small declines, and they show up in his lack of power with the Yankees. The de-juiced balls also seem to hurt him more than most. While his ground ball and flyball rates are mostly unchanged, his HR/FB ratio is down substantially. From 2016-2021, that number never dipped below 17% and was twice above 25%; this season it is 9.5%. That does not seem fluky, either: as mentioned, not only is he not hitting the ball as hard as previous years, but his barrel rate has dropped from 17.4% in 2021 to 9.9% in 2022. For a 36 year-old, injury-prone 3rd baseman to show such a steep decline in making the best kind of contact is concerning.
The same thing goes for his approach at the plate. His walk rate of 10.8% is still solidly above average. It does, however, represent a fairly precipitous decline from the 15.0% that he averaged from 2016-2021. Anecdotally, I have noticed that Donaldson swings and misses a lot. I have never watched him closely until this season, but while his whiff rate is not really down from years past, it is still in just the 21st percentile league wide. Swinging and missing so frequently is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads to more power upon contact and the hitter has shown the ability to adjust with two strikes. Both are not true with the 2022 version of Josh Donaldson. Despite the lack of change in his whiff rate, his strikeout rate is concerningly up from the 21.2% that he averaged from 2016-2021 (21.0% in 2021 alone) to 25.9% in 2022. Why is his strikeout rate up? It appears that Donaldson is struggling with pitch recognition. His swing rate is way up as he has adopted a more aggressive approach at the plate, but the problem is the type of pitches that he is chasing. He is swinging at a career-high 33.6% of pitches outside of the strike zone this season; that number has not been above 26.3% since his first full season in 2013. A more aggressive approach at the plate is common among older players; as bat speed slows down and swing-and-miss becomes more common in their games, veterans often make the decision to swing more to give them more chances to generate power. Think 2021 Joey Votto as an optimal version of this: lots of strikeouts, less walks, but more homers to compensate. The obvious problem with Donaldson is that 6 home runs and a sub-.400 slugging percentage are not exactly carrying their weight to make up for the rise in strikeouts and decline in walks. (Hopefully, again, his recent hot streak is a portent of good things to come.)
On the positive side, Donaldson’s defense at third base has been as good as, if not better than, advertised. Among third baseman, he ranks tied for fifth (with D.J. LeMahieu) with 4 OAA and ranks fourth with 9 Defensive Runs Saved. He has also committed just 4 errors in 356.1 innings. For a 36 year-old, those are exceptional numbers.
And overall, I love what his intensity brings to the clubhouse. For the last few years, the Yankees have been a very laid-back team. Their stars, from Aaron Judge to Giancarlo Stanton, are almost all more of the calming types rather than the rah-rah, Paul O’Neill-type. Even their manager is this way (which is why Aaron Boone may not have been the best fit for the Yankees in previous years, but everything looks good when you are 59-23). I truly believe that they needed someone like Josh Donaldson to bring more outward intensity to the club. Still, the outgoing presence gets old pretty quickly if a guy does not produce. And I have not loved what I have seen from Donaldson in 2022 with both the eye test and the advanced metrics. With him under contract for $21 million in 2023, he is almost a lock to be around after the trade deadline. The 2015 version of Donaldson is obviously gone forever, but a return to the .827 OPS that he produced in 2021 should not be out of the question. I am not optimistic that we see even that version moving forward, even with the last few big games, but I would be happy to be proven wrong. If he can sustain this, the Yankees have yet another "plus" player in the lineup and on the field.