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Josh Donaldson and his weird year

What is going on with Josh Donaldson’s performance at the plate?

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As Sam noted a month ago, Josh Donaldson has had somewhat of a weird year with the Yankees so far. Even with a good homer yesterday, he has been merely OK at the plate and especially off since returning from the IL on June 3rd.

Back in May, Donaldson started pulling the ball more and hitting a ton of fly balls. Those two factors combined to help Donaldson post a triple slash line of .279/.371/475 with an .846 OPS. Those are excellent numbers that portended great things to come. Unfortunately, the suspension and IL stint followed, and Donaldson has begun to hit closer to how he did in April (a bit worse, actually). Which is to say, that he entered play on Sunday hitting .209/.260/.279 with a .539 OPS during the month of June. In May, Donaldson had an wRC+ of 148, but in June, his wRC+ has cratered to just 53. His numbers in June have a whiff of putrescence about them.

Baseball Savant

In the previous two series against the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays, Donaldson appeared to be pressing at the plate. As a consequence, he has been hitting fairly poorly.

The Toronto game on June 17th is emblematic of some of the issues that Josh Donaldson is having. During that game, he saw five four-seam fastballs, and he could not touch a single one. In addition, he swung and whiffed on three of the fastballs. For the season, he has struggled with four-seamers with a batting average of only .208 against those pitches. In the end, Donaldson could only produce one hit in the entire game after five at-bats when there were several hittable pitches in the zone.

Josh Donaldson at-bat outcomes for games from 6-9-22 to 6-16-22.
Credit: Baseball Savant

The illustration above shows the depths of Donaldson’s struggles. Even when he has a pitch in the heart of the zone, he struggles to make something out of it. In the last five games before yesterday, he has struck out five times with balls within the strike zone. When he does put the ball in play, it tends to end in an out rather than a hit. This indicates that he is simply trying to do too much at the plate and he has struggled to make consistently productive at-bats.

Josh Donaldson June wOBA
Credit: Baseball Savant

Donaldson has played 11 games since the beginning of June, and he has struggled to hit pitches in the heart of the plate. In the middle of the plate, he has a .000 wOBA. On the season, for pitches in the middle of the plate, he has a wOBA of .405. This might mean that he is trying to cheat a little to pull the ball by swinging later. Overall, he has had little success on the pitches that should be eminently hittable.

In addition, Donaldson has started to pull the ball less. In May, his cumulative pull percentage sat at 51.3 percent, but now sits at 48.8 percent — and he is also hitting fewer fly balls. This has resulted in a cumulative decrease in fly ball percentage from 30.3 percent to 28.8 percent. While the change in fly ball rate and pull rate are not huge, they are indicative of the fact that Donaldson is not doing the things that makes him successful as a hitter.

Josh Donaldson Percentile Performance
Credit: Baseball Savant

There is some good news and some bad news for Donaldson with the advanced stats. Overall, he continues to smack the ball relatively hard with an average exit velocity in the 86th percentile, a hard-hit rate in the 73rd percentile, and barrel rate in the 72nd percentile. Unfortunately, those numbers are all significantly down from when Sam did his piece. In May, he had an average exit velocity in the 90th percentile, hard-hit rate in the 82nd percentile, and a barrel rate in the 87th percentile.

This can only lead to the conclusion that Donaldson is struggling mightily to effectively put the ball in play. I am not sure that there are any easy solutions to his struggles. What kind of solution is there to not being able to hit in the center of the zone? I don’t know of one beyond continuing to run him out there and seeing if he can find a groove again.

If there is any solace in Donaldson’s play, it’s that he continues to provide very good defense and a huge amount of walks. Consequently, he still has a positive WAR for the season according to FanGraphs, which has him pegged at 0.8 with an wRC+ of 108. If Donaldson can start hitting pitches in the middle of the zone again, it’s possible that he could still have a positive year.