Why Josh Donaldson’s slow start with Yankees isn’t cause for concern

On Opening Day, New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson hit a walk-off single to beat the Boston Red Sox. It was only natural for Yankees fans to begin to dream of Donaldson turning back the clock to his MVP days and becoming the fiery team leader with an MVP-like bat to boot.

Unfortunately, since then, Donaldson has failed to find his rhythm at the plate. Is the 36-year-old third baseman over the hill or will his numbers rebound back toward his career averages?

Despite his current production lacking so far, a look under the hood should ease the minds of Yankees fans who are concerned about Donaldson so far (before Thursday night’s game where he blasted a three-run homer). While a .215 average and .686 OPS represent numbers below expectations, it’s worth putting those into better context. Donaldson has a 114 wRC+ (14% above league average, which is 100).

It’s fair to think, “How could such mediocre stats add up to an above-average bat?” This would be because wRC+ takes into account the current run scoring environment which in today’s MLB is … poor, to say the least. Between cold April weather and a new baseball that seems to carry roughly as well as a cinderblock, offense has cratered overall. Somehow MLB has found a way to tip the scales in the pitchers’ favor even more this offseason — truly a masterclass of incompetence over the last six months from commissioner Rob Manfred.

Donaldson looks to be a prime candidate getting hurt most from the suddenly-dead baseballs. His statcast numbers are right in line with his career norms, with his average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and launch angle all right in line with his 2021 campaign. While he hasn’t changed much, those numbers are just not generating the results he’s used to.

A paltry 9.1% HR-to-FB rate is well below his career number of 19%. Basically, Donaldson has been himself, but his fly balls that historically have left the park are now finding outfielders’ gloves or staying in the yard for doubles.

This all adds up, as the statistic Donaldson is lacking in the most is slugging percentage. This is despite being in the 89th percentile for average exit velocity and the 75th percentile for hard-hit percentage. Despite his advanced age, the quality of his contact makes it clear he still has plenty left in the tank.

Could Donaldson be struggling mechanically? And is that the cause for his relative lack of production? It’s certainly possible. I’m not a hitting coach and therefore cannot effectively comment on whether or not something is up with Donaldson’s swing or timing. What I can do, however, is look at the numbers he has produced and deduce that the story they tell is one of a player who has deserved more results than he’s gotten.

Here’s a quick list of relevant stats that predict improvement in the future:

  • A .218 AVG vs a .249 Expected AVG (he hit .247 in 2021)
  • A .352 SLG% vs a ..445 Expected SLG% (he slugged .475 in 2021)
  • A .132 ISO vs a .205 career mark (this despite similar batted ball data to 2021)

Has Donaldson been tearing the cover off the ball? Not really. Should he have numbers similar to his 2021 season in Minnesota? Probably. Are his current numbers still better than they are in the court of public opinion? Definitely.

While Donaldson has yet to “wow” Yankees fans with a prolonged hot streak, his underlying metrics show a player mostly unchanged from his very productive previous seasons. What has changed for Donaldson is arguably out of his control and should eventually stop being such a hindrance on his overall numbers. Luckily for him, the Yankees have been racking up wins despite a relative lack of production from the hot corner. And when he heats up? Watch out.