Josh Donaldson has had a bit of a strange first month and a half in Yankees pinstripes. He started the season with a sub-.600 OPS through April 22nd, but after a few weeks of steady play, his bat has really begun to come alive recently, with three homers in his last five games. That’s helped him boost his wRC+ up to 142 in 32 games, all with solid defense at the hot corner.
On a basic level, Donaldson is doing everything right so far — he’s hitting the ball hard, pulling it, and hitting it in the air. His .246/.358/.439 slash line may look a touch disappointing, but remember, this is a depressed offensive environment at the moment and his league-relative numbers (like wRC+) are more in line with what you’d expect. Regardless, Donaldson is hitting the ball the best way he can in order to be successful, and although he has already been good, the best possible version of his current self might still be coming.
In 2022, Donaldson has pulled the ball at a career-high rate of 51.3 percent entering play on Monday, and hit fly balls more than ever as well, doing so 30.3 percent of the time. This combination is generally the most productive way to hit the ball, though of course Donaldson is talented enough to take the ball the other way with pop too, as he did for his last two homers. But pulling the ball in the air tends to lead to serious extra-base hit totals and subsequent damage done. This is especially the case with players who can hit the ball with authority like Donaldson.
In fact, the Yankee third basemen was one of the most outspoken players in the openness toward wanting to do this in the last decade or so. He even expressed disdain for hitting groundballs and the like.
As Donaldson reached and played through his peak in the mid-to-late 2010s, his batted-ball profile reflected these views. This mindset has continued now as he has begun his stint with New York. Donaldson has, of course, found success over the course of his career with this mentality, and although the beginning of this season may not be quite up to his standards, he is still doing the right things.
As mentioned, the third baseman is hitting fly balls and pulling the ball as much as ever in his career, something that’s typically an encouraging sign. And this encouragement is further reinforced by his continuing ability to hit the ball hard. As of Monday afternoon, Donaldson ranked in the 90th percentile for average exit velocity, 82nd in hard-hit rate, and 87th in barrel rate. The productivity that comes from pulling the ball in the air only increases as you hit the ball harder and harder.
The issue — if you can call it that — comes from the fact that Donaldson is not finding quite as much success on these types of batted balls as he typically should. On the year, Donaldson has a 215 wRC+ on pulled fly balls, which doesn’t sound too shabby. But this is a bit more disappointing when considering the league-wide number in this department is 370. Donaldson being that far below the league’s mark is not what one would expect, especially when considering his ability to hit the ball hard with the best of ‘em.
There are a few factors to consider when it comes to this, including bad luck, early-season weather, and of course the questionable state of the baseball itself. But most important is the fact that Donaldson’s process has been successful, as he’s effectively combining the most important aspects of what makes a hitter like him so dangerous.
In all reality — and in an oversimplified way — the best thing that one can do in the batter’s box is to hit the ball in the way that makes it least likely for an out to be recorded; the rest is mostly luck. Donaldson is doing just that. He is still crushing the ball, and is pulling fly balls as much as he ever has. The results, particularly when he is doing exactly that, haven’t been exactly what might be expected, but the success in the process may point to the likelihood of Donaldson reaching some of the lofty standards that he set in the past.