Josh Donaldson, while past his prime years, was still a very productive hitter in 2021, and a great fit in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup. In fact, I wrote about his potential as a productive hitter in March. To put it straight, I was still high on Donaldson. He is an extremely gifted hitter. It’d be silly to not give him a some credit for how many hitters think about swing planes and swing changes.
Though as it turns out, I may have been completely wrong about who he was going to be in his age-36 season. I thought even if there was some bat speed decline, there was just no way he could be less than a 120 wRC+ hitter. I mean, come on! We’re talking about Josh Donaldson here. Just last year, we saw him taking triple digit fastballs from Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease 400 feet. You don’t fluke hitting like that, you just don’t.
But as the season has gone on, I’ve become more and more worried about who he is, and if he has the bat speed it takes to catch up with high velocity fastballs like he did last year, or even in his first month with the Yankees! I know it’s not necessarily fair to judge the small sample that is the postseason, but some of his swings have been quite telling as to where he currently is at the plate. For example, I’ll highlight his awful at-bat against Justin Verlander.
Center cut slider, center cut fastball, and rising fastball just above the zone. Whiff, whiff, and another whiff. With a runner in scoring position, this just ain’t it. What’s alarming to me in the past few weeks, is Donaldson seems to have lost his feel for keeping his feet on the ground. One sign of aging is being a little too early on breakers, and just behind fastballs. That is certainly an aspect of what has happened to JD, but I’m quite sure it’s because his feet refuse to stay grounded.
To make contact on a variety of speeds, you need to decelerate your torso upon your foot hitting the ground. This may be silly, but imagine trying to may contact with a moving object while your feet are dancing. To make it even sillier, imagine you spun around a few times to make yourself dizzy then tried to hit the ball. You’d might miss a ton, right? While I’m speaking in hyperbole, it isn’t far off what Donaldson has done in some of his at-bats recently. I’ll spare you the sadness of his other strikeout against Verlander where he looked like he’s never seen a breaking ball in the big leagues.
There could be a few reasons for Donaldson’s sudden jumpiness in the box. One of them could be that he feels as if he has lost some bat speed. While that is certainly possible, I’m hesitant to make the conclusion without concrete data. He still hits the ball hard when he makes contact, and even with decreased bat speed, he can still be an above average hitter, given his baseline of bat speed is higher than the average major leaguer.
What I can say that, is if this is the case, Donaldson needs to be willing to do one of two things. The first, is he needs to tone down his load. Why? If he decreases the amount of time it takes to start his swing, then he gives himself a better chance to make consistent hard contact. That’s the approach I prefer for him, but who knows how long a former MVP could take to make this realization. He has a process that worked for a long time, and it may be tough to recognize the need to change. The second is, he can decrease his effort level in these swings, but I don’t think that’s worth it for him. He’s here to hit home runs against good pitching. That’s why I’d go with the first tweak if I was him. His rowing movement that he creates with hands can’t be rushed. Whatever it is he needs to do, whether it be tone down the row or start it earlier, it must happen soon. The Astros right-handed pitchers are a nightmare for him if he continues on.
Donaldson is beyond talented, and more than capable of maintaining his deep entry into the hitting zone while simultaneously toning down his load. He cannot continue to take these kinds of swings if he can’t catch up to high velocity while doing it. I hope somebody is willing to tell him this, because he is simply too good and talented to be an unproductive liability at the plate. After much thought about this article, I’ve decided I don’t have it in me to say Donaldson can’t be a good hitter anymore. The issue isn’t his talent, it’s his willingness to make an adjustment.