The Yankees entered the offseason with more question marks than answers. Uncertainty surrounded the starting pitching depth, the defense was suspect, and far too many offensive contributors had regressed the prior season. They needed to add impact players from a free agent and trade pool loaded with talent. Therefore, when they announced the acquisition of Josh Donaldson from the Twins, I experienced the extreme ends of the fan reaction spectrum.
In Donaldson, the Yankees were acquiring a former MVP who still hit the ball as hard as anyone in baseball. He was a professional hitter who at the very least would work counts and not give away any ABs. He still possessed adequate range and a cannon arm from third, and could be counted on to make all the defensive plays that were expected of him. And if you’re into this kind of thing, he brought an edge to the team that was noticeably absent from the previous few campaigns.
On the flip side, Donaldson was entering his age-36 season with signs of decline from the previous two years. For a team that professed its desire to become faster and more athletic, Donaldson checked neither of those boxes. And as a high on-base, exit-velo hitter with plenty of swing and miss in his game, I worried New York was increasing an excess already present on the roster. The final kicker, with hindsight providing the prescription-strength clarity that it does — it appeared the Twins leveraged Donaldson’s salary dump to sign Carlos Correa. As the Yankees’ marquee addition of the offseason, and in the context of all the younger impact players who swapped teams either via trade or free agency, it was hard not to feel... underwhelmed.
Through the first week of games, I feared the pessimistic outlook was proving true. Sure, the triple slash line and elevated strikeouts didn’t look great, but that was far from what troubled me most. No, what really raised my hackles was degradation in two areas considered hallmarks of his game.
I’m talking about chase rate and groundball rate. For most of his career, Donaldson has sat among the league’s best at controlling the zone, in particular laying off pitches out of the zone. Additionally, as one of the progenitors of the modern flyball revolution, groundballs have always been anathema to the righty slugger. That is why it was so alarming to see Donaldson post uncharacteristically high chase (52.8 percent) and groundball (43.8 percent) rates through the first two series.
Have no fear, my friends, for it appears these trends were only a temporary blip in the road. Over his next 12 games, Donaldson got those numbers back under control. Yes, the 34.2 percent chase rate is still high, but that’s a residual effect from the ungodly amount of chasing he did in the first handful of games. As for the groundball rate, not only has he wrangled it in, it would represent a new career-low at 30.2 percent.
Wouldn’t you know it, the more the chase and groundball rates fell, the better the results became at the plate. Even more encouraging, it appears Donaldson has exchanged all of those groundballs for line drives, also reflected in a career-best 34.9 percent flare/burner rate. Flares/burners are considered the second-best type of batted ball after barrels — hit with slightly lower launch angle and exit velocity. It’s the salmon-colored area in the batted ball diagram below.
In short, Donaldson is hitting the ball like, well... Josh Donaldson. And that’s why I was never really worried about Donaldson, nor would I have been worried if the poor process had continued to the present day. He’s just too good a hitter to have remained in that funk. Indulge me, if you will, while I take a few moments to explain why I remain so confident in his swing.
These are the prototypical backspun home runs that hitters dream about. Such flyballs carry that extra bit farther because of the ideal way in which Donaldson has impacted them.
In contrast, two weeks ago, Esteban penned a thorough piece examining how Joey Gallo’s propensity to topspin his hardest-hit balls robs the lefty slugger of a ton of potential production. In some respects, Donaldson’s swing is the polar opposite of Gallo’s. Gallo’s extreme uppercut swing leaves him a tiny window for ideal impact of the baseball. It also effectively creates a gaping hole at the top of the zone for pitchers to exploit. Donaldson on the other hand is among the golden standards for a level swing.
Look how level his swing is through the zone! Fastball, breaking ball, and offspeed thrown to different quadrants of the zone — Donaldson perfectly matches his swing plane to the vertical approach angle of the pitch. That he is able to keep his swing on plane for so long through the hitting zone allows him a much wider window to barrel the ball. (As an interesting aside, both Donaldson and Gallo routinely sit among the league leaders in barrel rate despite their vastly divergent swings — goes to show there is no one correct way to swing the bat.)
Of course, there is always room for improvement. I lauded him for working deep counts, but that alone doesn’t guarantee success. There’s no sugarcoating this, Donaldson has been getting torched in two-strike counts. He is 1-for-38 with a .115 wOBA with two strikes on him, and that has to improve. My other concern is that Donaldson is hitting underneath the baseball at 32.6 percent clip, easily the highest rate of his career. These types of batted balls yield popups and lazy flies, so I’d love to see that percentage come down.
So what are we to take away from all this? Honestly, I think Donaldson was pressing in his first week in pinstripes, and lately has gotten back to the hitter he’s been for the better part of the last decade. He was trying to force results, perhaps chasing pitches he normally would lay off, and when you swing at pitches you shouldn’t you generally make poor contact (thus the elevated groundball rates). It’s nice to see him finally start to settle down — the Yankees lineup is all the more dangerous with a raking Donaldson at its heart.