For a team that won 92 games and reached the postseason while competing in a very tough division in 2021, the Yankees, somewhat paradoxically, entered this past offseason with many needs to address. There were several individual positions and even more overall aspects of gameplay on a team-wide level that were in need of upgrades. Although the acquisition of Josh Donaldson certainly raised a few questions, it would be very hard to argue that the Yankees are not an improved team with him, in several regards.
2021 Stats: 543 PA, 26 HR, .247/.352/.475, .353 wOBA, 124 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 567 PA, 27 HR, .246/.355/.467, .353 wOBA, 125 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR
It would be hard to argue that Josh Donaldson was not the second-best player in baseball from 2013 through 2017, as his 33.1 bWAR and 34.4 fWAR were both second across MLB to only the incomparable Mike Trout. Over that stretch, Donaldson added plus baserunning and a better-than-average glove at third base to a prodigious bat that produced a 145 OPS+ over the five seasons for Oakland and Toronto. With that production, the “Bringer of Rain” earned himself two Silver Slugger awards, three All-Star appearances, and four top-ten finishes in the AL MVP voting, including winning the award over Trout in 2015.
Unfortunately for Donaldson, 2017 began a long stretch in which he would consistently battle injuries. He missed time in 2017 with a strained calf, and then missed three weeks in 2018 with a shoulder issue after trying to play through the discomfort. (At one point over that stretch, Yankees announcer David Cone noted that Donaldson’s throws from third base reminded Cone of pie tossing contests at state fairs in Missouri – a harsh or hysterical description, depending upon one’s perspective.) Even after the shoulder healed, Donaldson incurred further calf strains in 2018, causing him to miss over 100 games on the season. After a very good 2019 season in which he posted 5.4 bWAR over 155 games with Atlanta, Donaldson again missed almost one month of the 2020 season with a re-aggravation of the calf issue.
Although a hamstring strain forced Donaldson to miss 12 games with the Twins in 2021, he bounced back again with another good season posting 3.8 WARP, 3.2 bWAR, and a 127 OPS+ over 135 games. Even more impressively, his average exit velocity ranked in the 99th percentile in MLB, while his hard-hit percentage, barrel percentage, xwOBA, and xSLG were all at or above the 92nd percentile in MLB. For perhaps even more insight to show his bounce-back season wasn’t a fluke, his 2021 BABIP of .268 was almost 30 points below his career average.
What changes could 2022 bring to Donaldson, and therefore the Yankees? Yankee Stadium isn’t as friendly to right-handed power hitters as it is to left-handed batters but that’s unlikely to affect Donaldson negatively. In fact, according to Baseball Savant, Donaldson has hit 70 long balls over the past three seasons and it would have been 82 had all of his plate appearances been in the Bronx over that span.
Rules changes limiting shifts are unlikely to affect the Yankees new third baseman either as his batted-ball percentages of pull, middle, and opposite field are virtually identical to the league averages over his career – which may explain why he only faced a shift in 17 percent of his plate appearances in 2021.
Perhaps just getting away from Target Field may help Donaldson, however. In almost the exact same number of times at bat (271 at home, 272 on the road) last season, Donaldson was a much different hitter outside of Minnesota, posting a .265/.364/.539 triple-slash line away from Target Field. Meanwhile, his .229/.340/.410 slash line in the Twin Cities was decidedly less impressive. (Although I’m not going to take anything from 158 PA stretched over 11 seasons, in fairness I’ll note that his .167/.261/.312 career slash line at Yankee Stadium isn’t too impressive either.)
We know Donaldson is a proven high-OBP hitter with power, but he may improve the Yankees in less obvious ways as well. Although we all loved Gio Urshela’s slick-looking glove, Donaldson is a defensive upgrade at the hot corner for the team by virtually all accounts, and as I noted last week, his baserunning may not win the team any games, it’s unlikely to lose them games either (which is an upgrade over Urshela as well).
As I also remarked last season, the 2021 Yankees were hurt by their alarming lack of doubles, finishing dead last in the AL in that category in ’21. To me, that was a big reason they were below AL average in both slugging percentage and runs per game despite tying for third in homers. To that end, Don Mattingly’s single-season franchise record of 53 doubles is still safe, but Donaldson’s 26 doubles in 2021 would have led the Yankees.
Additionally, Yankees batters' proclivity for seeing three strikes in an at-bat and then sitting on the bench was a sore subject with many fans, as well as with some important folks in the organization last season. Although how much a high strikeout rate actually hurts a team can be fairly debated, it’s safe to say striking out a lot is not a “good” thing, and only three AL teams struck out at a higher rate than the Yankees in 2021. If this is a concern of yours, I have what may be surprisingly good news for you: Despite being a power hitter who takes a lot of pitches, Josh Donaldson’s strikeout rate was slightly lower than league average last season and has been below league average over his 11 seasons as well.
Of course, Donaldson is 36, has battled injuries on and off for five seasons now, and those realities justifiably raise concerns. That said, he has appeared in 83 percent of his teams’ games over the previous three seasons, which isn’t Ripken-esque by any means, but it’s also not particularly problematic either. Other questions that have been raised about Donaldson’s acquisition are discussions for another time and most don’t have anything to do with Donaldson anyway, as they’re about the roster in general.
The bottom line is that in acquiring Josh Donaldson, the Yankees improved in several regards, some obvious, some more subtle. That’s something that should give us fans more reason for optimism than cynicism with respect to our new third baseman, who will hopefully bring down plenty of rain in 2022.