There hasn’t been much to cheer about in Yankeeland over the last month-plus. Yes, Aaron Judge continues to light the league on fire and DJ LeMahieu is back to performing like the hitting machine of 2020-21, but the team remains mired in an an extended rut. From the start of July through the end of play on Sunday, New York stumbled to a 14-18 record, including a downright putrid five-game losing streak after the trade deadline.
The offense has looked blunted without Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton to back up the aforementioned pair, scoring three runs or fewer in three of the last four contests, and they’ve just lost Matt Carpenter, too. The lineup just isn’t as scary with the recently-slumping Gleyber Torres and Josh Donaldson occupying the three- and four-holes. That being said, there are some encouraging trends in the month of August that point to a turnaround in form for the latter member of that duo.
Donaldson has had a Jekyll-and-Hyde first year in pinstripes. He was one of the steadier contributors on offense up until the late-May shoulder injury that cost him two weeks, with five home runs and a 123 wRC+ through the first 37 games. Upon returning from injury, he endured a rocky two week stretch; going 9-for-43 with a 30 percent strikeout rate and 51 wRC+.
Things looked like they were turning around starting with the 6/19 contest against the Blue Jays, with Donaldson ripping off a 17-game stretch with four home runs and a 119 wRC+. But then came his most putrid run of form as a Yankee, 17 games from July 9th to July 31st going 9-for-57 with a 35 percent strikeout rate and 15 wRC+.
Just when it looked like Donaldson’s advanced age had fully caught up with him, we’re seeing some signs of life over the last seven games, including the impressive four-hit night yesterday. He has five extra-base hits including a pair of dingers and a 247 wRC+, and it seems like every batted ball is struck with authority. He’s walking in 13.3 percent of plate appearances this month, which balances out a 26.7 percent strikeout rate. And in the broader context of his gameplan at the plate, those strikeout totals aren’t even all that bad — they indicate a more aggressive mindset on balls in the zone, contrasted with what felt at times to be an overly-passive approach during the slump.
What’s fueling this resurgence? For starters,, Donaldson is making better swing decisions. Relative to the 7/9-7/31 slide, his chase rate is down almost six points while his swing rate against pitches in the shadow zone — pitches around the edges of the zone that are called strikes roughly half the time, and not necessarily the best pitches to hit — is down over three points. But most importantly, Donaldson’s contact metrics are night and day different.
His zone contact rate during the slump stood at 66.2 percent. It’s at 86.7 percent in the month of August. However, just making contact is only half the battle, it’s the quality of contact that wins the day. I decided to look at the percentage of his batted balls thrown over the heart of the plate that fall under the Statcast categories of barrel, solid, and flare/burner — the three best kinds of contact for doing damage. From July 9th to July 31st, only a third of his batted balls fell under those headings. In August, that skyrockets to 75 percent. And it appears this is the result of mechanical adjustments Donaldson has made at the plate.
Here is footage of Donaldson facing a pair of fastballs right down the middle from Brandon Bielak when the Yankees faced the Astros on July 21st. His swing is long and loopy and he’s unable to get the barrel to the ball, resulting in a whiff and a foul.
Here he is against the Orioles two days later, again facing a pair of heaters. He’s way late and whiffs against the first one. Against the second, he’s collapsing on his backside and almost throwing his arms at the ball in addition to a little bit of stepping in the bucket, all of which prevent him from doing anything other than foul off the middle-middle fastball.
It’s not just against the fastball that he struggled. Look at these two swings against a pair of sliders from Kaleb Ort of the Red Sox on July 16th. He’s guessing fastball both times and whiffs way early both times.
The worst were these two swings against cement-mixer sliders thrown by Max Scherzer and Seth Lugo of the Mets on July 27th. He’s again out in front of the first one and hits a weak nubber groundout. On the second, he’s diving out over the plate, the off-balance swing fouling away a cookie pitch.
It was a Murphy’s Law combination of poor timing, not seeing the ball well, and balky mechanics that prevented him from hitting even the most hittable pitches. Contrast that with the following clips where we catch glimpses of the Donaldson of old.
Take this RBI single against the Cardinals on August 5th. It’s another fastball down the middle, but this time his body weight is staying centered over his legs instead of diving out over the plate. He’s able to transfer the energy from his base into a sharply-struck line drive.
This RBI double was even more impressive. The slider wasn’t even a bad pitch, but Donaldson drives it into the gap with relative ease. In addition to the classic compact, level swing upon which Donaldson built his success, note the way his front toe is pointing at a 45 degree angle instead of directly toward pitcher, allowing his hips to rotate at the proper time while maintaining good upper body posture.
The nice thing about these positive strides in the batted ball and plate discipline departments is that they stabilize much faster than metrics like OPS and wRC+. They’re usually the result of adjustments in process, which are the types of changes that can stick and predict future performance. Donaldson appears to have rediscovered his vintage swing this month, and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Yankees.