When Andrew posted the signup sheet for the staff to pick whose report cards to write, I grabbed Josh Donaldson right away. I felt I owed it, given that I was legitimately excited about him coming over from the Twins last offseason. He was an elite hitter and better yet, one of the deepest thinkers about the art of hitting in the game today. I thought he would be a huge offensive addition and one that would age well given his astuteness.
To put it plainly, lol Josh, you got Josh wrong.
2022 Statistics: 132 games, 546 plate appearances, .222/.308/.374, 97 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Final year of a 4/$92 million contract
For the first two months of the season, it looked like my prognostication was correct. Donaldson had a perfectly meaty 123 wRC+, a below-average strikeout rate, and won the very first game of the Yankees’ season with a walk-off hit:
And then, well, a few things happened.
On a Saturday afternoon with the White Sox in town, Donaldson instigated a benches-clearing brawl after both Tim Anderson and Yasmani Grandal took exception to his calling Tim “Jackie,” an at-best tasteless, at-worst outright racist quip at the Black shortstop. Donaldson later claimed it was a running inside joke between the pair, but the most charitable interpretation is that Donaldson was deliberately trying to get under Anderson’s skin. The less charitable interpretation is, again, it was a straight-up racist joke.
And herein lies a problem with Donaldson, one that I’ve wrestled with since he was a Blue Jay and since I began to admire his hitting prowess. When he’s in the box, he’s been a savant, as thoughtful a slugger as you’ll ever find in the game. When he’s out of the box, he is, at best, a boorish jock bro who grates on people. I think there is a reason why the former MVP has moved around so much in a relatively short time (five teams in five years), and why teammates never seem to be too sad that he gets dealt. Donaldson is talented, no question, but he seems to be — again being as charitable as possible — a deeply unpleasant person.
Donaldson was suspended for the dustup, and then he got hurt, missing more than two weeks of action. After that his offense fell off a cliff, an 86 wRC+ the rest of the way and a .359 slugging percentage good enough for 13th (!!) on the club for the remainder of the season. Initially, I thought that he had lost bat speed, as he looked simply overmatched by merely average pitching, much less elite stuff. Esteban disagrees slightly, noting that Donaldson still produced strong exit velocity when he made contact this year. However, the single metric that most makes me think he can’t get it around as quickly is his contact rate on pitches in the zone, an MLB-worst 75.5 percent. The Yankee mantra was “hit strikes hard,” but Donaldson couldn’t even hit strikes at all.
Still, the bat is not what it once was, but even accounting for slight regression, I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Donaldson had his worst offensive season since a 75-game stretch in 2012, and because the Yankees’ lineup was relatively thin all year, found himself hitting in the third, fourth or fifth slot in 101 games this season, which massively contributed to the idea that he could not cash runs in. There are a lot of problems with RBI as a statistic, but Donaldson had his fewest in a full season ever, and did it while hitting behind guys like Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo a LOT.
The one saving grace to his season is he was an outstanding defender, eighth in baseball in OAA among third baseman. When you consider that some combination of Ke’Bryan Hayes, Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado will be in the top three in that metric for as long as they’re playing, eighth isn’t bad company to keep. He was top five in UZR/150 and DRS as well, so there’s no debate he had a strong year at the hot corner.
Donaldson wasn’t brought here to be glove-first, though. I’ve said before that I thought Anthony Rizzo would be the glovely defender with an aging bat, and Donaldson would be the veteran to bolster the top half of the lineup. I got those two completely backwards, and with a $25 million AAV for next year, Josh needs to figure out what’s wrong with his hitting. Part of me thinks he can do it, but as they say, Father Time is undefeated and may have come for Donaldson. All in all, it was a dreadful year for the one-time star, and there’s no guarantee it’s going to get better.