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On Josh Donaldson and being average

Josh Donaldson’s 2022 was a disappointment, but that doesn’t mean his contributions will be detrimental in 2023.

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Yankees fans and those surrounding the Yankees’ organization have this sort of entitlement when it comes to superstars. Sure, we like the our role players who come through in the clutch like Luis Sojo, but we like them in spots. The idea of an average player anchoring a position in pinstripes isn’t usually one that is welcome. We love our stars, our star production, and all of the histrionics that come with them.

Average doesn’t make for headlines. Maybe it’s the “George Steinbrenner Effect” on our collective sports psyche or just the New York need for the star. We don’t like average. And, we certainly don’t like to pay for average.

That lens skews our perception. While baseball will always be more than a game of numbers, a player can still contribute, even if he is simply league average.

There is no sugarcoating Josh Donaldson’s first year in pinstripes; it was a mess. It was far below expectations for a player who was being paid $23 million for the season. The former MVP continued a steady decline in 2022, something that began at the start of the 2018 season. While that regression was masked a bit with the home run ball and some injuries, there were signs in his metrics all along. 2022 seemed to be the culmination of that regression that saw him crater and produce his worst season since becoming a full-time player in 2013.

On top of that, there doesn’t look to be any signs of a bounce-back year. Believe me, I’ve tried to find even a scintilla of hope in his contact rates, his approach at the plate, and even explored the idea that he was just really unlucky. There isn’t any realistic sign of that. Anywhere.

So, this isn’t a story about combing the numbers to make a case for a Josh Donaldson revival. Barring a miracle, it simply isn’t there.

Much of the narrative of the off-season has been about the Yankees trading Donaldson, essentially paying another team to take on the aging veteran for one last season before he can be bought out for $8 million. It makes for good fodder. That assumes that Brian Cashman would be willing to admit this mistake, and it would also assume that Cashman doesn’t believe that Donaldson is better than any of the realistic alternatives right now.

The latter point may be the real reason. Yes, the Yankees technically have DJ LeMahieu to capably man third base should Donaldson be banished, but Yankees don’t even know if LeMahieu will be available to play at the beginning of the season. That question has sort of lingered in the background this winter, yet it is still one without an answer. He cannot be counted on to be the everyday third baseman at this point, not yet at least.

They also have one of the shortstop candidates, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza, or Anthony Volpe, who could shift over. None of them guarantee an upgrade over Donaldson’s production in 2023.

Gleyber Torres is another candidate, yet he is rumored to be on the trade block as well. Even he isn’t a guarantee to out-produce Donaldson once defense is factored in.

The free agent market didn’t offer any great upgrade either unless you think an aging Justin Turner, an equally aging Evan Longoria, or a return of Brandon Drury would be better. Taking the emotion out of it, none of those options are really any better than Josh Donaldson.

The Yankees are “stuck” with Josh Donaldson. It may not be as bad as it sounds.

The average MLB third baseman in 2023 (with 200 plate appearances at the position) slashed .242/.314/.400 with 14 home runs and 52 RBI. They posted an 8.6 percent walk rate, a 22.6 percent strikeout rate, a .314 wOBA, 102 RC+, and a 11.4 percent HR/FB rate (all data courtesy of FanGraphs).

In terms of contact rate, the average third baseman had a 53 percent medium contact rate and a 30.8 percent hard contact rate. Defensively, the average third baseman produced a defensive runs saved mark of 0.2.

It’s easy to salivate over stars like Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Jose Ramirez, Rafael Devers, and Austin Riley. We can also lose perspective of what many teams roll out at the hot corner on a consistent basis. Players like Jon Berti, Patrick Wisdom, Jace Peterson, Yoan Moncada, Brian Anderson, and Jeimer Candelario all played significant time at third base. Simply, the third base position is not incredibly deep.

Even in the worst season of his career, Donaldson posted a .222/.308/.400 slash mark with 28 doubles, 15 home runs, and 62 RBI. He posted a 9.9 percent walk rate, a 27.1 percent strikeout rate, a .302 wOBA, a 97 RC+, and a 11.5 percent HR/FB rate. His medium and hard contact rates of 52.1 percent and 33.3 percent were right in line with the league average.

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Offensively, Josh Donaldson was just a bit below average. It is the defense that makes him just a bit better. His defensive runs saved mark of +7 sets him apart. It ranks fourth highest among major league third baseman.

Factoring in his diminished offensive output and above average defense, Josh Donaldson is a perfectly average player at his position, even entering his age-37 season.

We want Josh Donaldson to be more than average, but the Yankees don’t necessarily need that. He just can’t be a negative. Even at his worst, Donaldson was not a liability relative to the rest of the league at his position. Of course it would be nice to have that $23 million go to someone with better production, with more upside in their bat. Right now, nothing like that is eminently available. Donaldson is not stopping the Yankees from acquiring someone else. He isn’t the reason why the Yankees don’t have Rafael Devers right now. He has zero trade value. He is, again, perfectly average and adequate.

Is there a hope for a rebound? As said above, no, there’s no real reason to believe one is coming. Other than the hope of a veteran All-Star having that one last good run like Albert Pujols did last season, there is little more to hope for than another average season from Josh Donaldson.

All that said... let’s find that scintilla of hope if we can. Donaldson’s contact rates didn’t change drastically when one considers that he’s only posted a contact rate over 80 percent once since the start of the 2018 season. Last year’s 75.5 percent contact rate might be the worst of his career, but it was right in line with his 2019 season when he slashed .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs or even his 2021 season when he hit .247/.352/.475 with 26 home runs. With a better approach at the plate (swinging less on balls out of the strike zone), Donaldson could improve.

It isn’t likely. It doesn’t have to be likely in order for the Yankees to be successful. Donaldson just has to stall the decline right here. If he does, he will be perfectly average. That will provide enough production for the Yankees to contend.