It’s funny how last offseason can feel like it is simultaneously just yesterday but also eons away. By that I mean, the record spending of this winter makes last winter feel like a distant memory, and yet the team is still feeling the acute ramifications of their behavior 12 months ago. Despite the abundance of impact shortstops and lineup-altering bats on the free agent market, the Yankees made their blockbuster of Winter 2022 a trade for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Fast forward a year and the team is waiting for Donaldson’s contract to expire, Kiner-Falefa is fighting for a starting job, and we still don’t know the Opening Day starting shortstop.
Because of his salary, past performance, and controversial incidents, Donaldson is the focal point of last winter and of the task at hand today.
2022 Yankees Statistics: 132 games played, 546 plate appearances, .222/.308/.374, 15 HR, 62 RBI, 97 wRC+, 9.9 BB%, 27.1 K%, 1.6 fWAR
2023 ZiPS Projections: 121 games, 495 plate appearances, .223/.321/.406, 19 HR, 58 RBI, 110 wRC+, 11.7 BB%, 26.3 K%, 2.7 fWAR
2022 was a year of many firsts for Donaldson, none of them good. It was the first full season that he posted a wRC+ below 100, slugged below .400, fielded a walk rate in the single digits, and struck out in more than a quarter of plate appearances. Now at 37 years old, it is more than fair to wonder whether Father Time finally caught up with the third baseman.
There are those — team officials at the forefront — who would have us believe that Donaldson is primed for a rebound at the plate after posting his worst full season on offense. For what it’s worth, ZiPS pegs him for a campaign 10 percent better than league average with the bat and I reckon every Yankees fan would take that in a heartbeat. However, I have yet to come across a compelling argument for a Donaldson offensive bounceback that doesn’t rely on some form of “he’s a former MVP.”
Perhaps the most critical contributor to age-related decline for hitters is the loss of bat speed. Not only does it reduce the ability to impact the baseball with force, it also forces hitters to start their swings earlier, leaving them more vulnerable to breaking and offspeed pitches with late movement away from the hitting zone. While public access to bat speed data is sparse at best, there are some publicly-available metrics that I like to use as a proxy for bat speed.
The first place I look is exit velocity, both average and max. In that department, Donaldson lost roughly two mph off his average exit velocity and three mph of his max exit velocity — both indicators that he’s no longer able to swing the bat as fast as he once could.
The second I look at is performance against fastballs. You need bat speed to hit the heater, especially with the octane pitchers are throwing with these days. In 2022, Donaldson lost over 70 points off his xwOBA against fastballs relative to career average and posted a net negative Run Value against fastballs for the first time in his career.
We also saw the beginnings of the degradation of Donaldson’s plate discipline in 2022, the part of his game that separated him among the elite of the elite during his prime years. The worsening of his walk and strikeout rates can be attributed in part to a six point spike in his chase rate, most of which came against pitches around the periphery of the strike zone.
The silver lining in all of this is that Donaldson’s elite defense at third gave him a relatively high floor when it comes to overall value. Even with a below-league-average stick, Donaldson approached the production of an MLB regular starter. ZiPS believes the glove will remain just as elite in 2023, which combined with the offensive rebound would generate value roughly in line with what he is paid.
I suppose one nice thing about the Yankees facing a logjam in the infield is there is no shortage of options to replace Donaldson at third. The team continues to insist that Oswaldo Cabrera is a utilityman first and left fielder second and have already given him third base reps in spring. A healthy and productive DJ LeMahieu needs to be in the lineup every day and few will shed a tear for Donaldson if he’s the one replaced. Playing third has been floated as a possibility for Anthony Volpe should both he and Oswald Peraza stick in the major league infield, and Kiner-Falefa won a Gold Glove at third as recently as 2020.
All of this is to say that while hopes of a rebound remain, expectations for Josh Donaldson in 2023 are low. The signs of age-related decline are too prevalent to ignore — the question is whether Donaldson can remain slick enough with the glove to again compensate for the worsening bat and thus justify the starting job that Yankees decision makers seem so eager to award him.