Yankees fans had unreasonable hopes for Josh Donaldson

Apr 30, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson (28) looks on during batting practice before a game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 30, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson (28) looks on during batting practice before a game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports /

Since the end of the 2022 season, it would be hard to think of a Yankee who has taken more flak from our fanbase than Josh Donaldson. And with Donaldson and Aaron Hicks now the subject of trade rumors, that anger has reached a boiling point

There are a number of reasons why Donaldson is the subject of so much ire. One reason is that fans refuse to recognize his defensive skills. Defensive statistics are less well known (and, admittedly, less objective) than traditional offensive stats. Therefore, to many fans, Donaldson’s strength was invisible, whereas his low batting average and home run count were plain as day.

Another part of the story is that it can be hard for fans to accept that the meaning of statistical thresholds evolves through the years. Most fans take it for granted that a good batting average should be near .300 or better. Josh Donaldson batted .222 last year, a disappointing number for sure, but one that seems much less disappointing when one considers that the league average for 2022 was .244.

Josh Donaldson was a moderately below-average hitter in 2022 (97 wRC+), but he was an average to slightly-above average overall player thanks to his defense (2.4 Baseball Reference WAR). Nonetheless, Yankees fans have been acting like he was a total flop, thanks in large part to his late-season swings-and-misses in primetime.

Some might respond that I’m forgetting which team I am writing about. Sure, 2022 Josh Donaldson was an average major leaguer, but average major leaguers aren’t good enough for the New York Yankees. The Yankees aspire to be the best team in baseball every year, so being average doesn’t cut it.

But of course, in practice, that is not true. We all know that even the best baseball teams have a thorough range of talent on their active rosters — and thank goodness for that. In European soccer, top teams truly do hoard talent, leading lesser stars to waste their careers on benches rather than starting for other teams.

No, the real issue is not that there can’t be average players on the Yankees. It’s that Yankees fans didn’t expect one of those average players to be Josh Donaldson. When Yankees fans found out a former MVP and three-time All-Star would be joining their roster, they got excited. Clearly, some fans forgot that it had been six years since Donaldson’s last All-Star appearance.

To be fair, Donaldson played well in the year before he came to New York; well, but not amazingly well. At age 35, his totals for home runs, doubles, walks and batting average were a solid notch below where they’d been in his last full season (2019). Whereas his Baseball Reference WAR for 2019 was an excellent 5.4, it had dropped to a merely respectable 3.2 in 2021. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Donaldson’s numbers dropped further in 2022, his age-36 season.

Furthermore, Yankees fans have to remember the conditions in which Josh Donaldson came to the Yankees. We didn’t sign him as an expensive free agent, or acquire him in exchange for prized prospects. No, Donaldson (along with Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt) went to the Yankees in exchange for Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela.

In essence, the two teams swapped players who were not (or were no longer) considered big stars, but still held the potential to be pleasant surprises. And while the Twins might have felt pressure to give up Donaldson to make salary room for Carlos Correa, if the Twins truly believed in Donaldson, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have kept him around so that he and Correa could combine forces to lead them to playoff glory.

The final piece of the Donaldson puzzle is that he was acquired in exchange for a Yankee fan favorite in Urshela. And to add salt the wound, Urshela ended up putting up a nice 2022 campaign for Minnesota; he finished with a 3.1 Baseball Reference WAR.

But while it’s true that the 2022 Yankees might have fared slightly better with Urshela on their team than with Donaldson, one has to remember this outcome was far from guaranteed. Urshela owes his solid season to a great finish (a 142 wRC+ in September). Otherwise, he looked like a pretty average player, and it makes sense that the Yankees decided to trade him before he was too far removed from his 2019 form.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s reasonable to feel disappointed that we got our hands on a great baseball player, only to find out that we acquired him a year too late. That said, our expectations should have been reversed. Rather than seeing Josh Donaldson as a superstar who disappointed us, we should have seen him as a wildcard who didn’t succeed, but didn’t really fail either.  Simply put, we were never going to get Mike Trout in a trade for the 2021 versions of Gary Sánchez  and Gio Urshela.

Furthermore, it’s not wise to bet on 36-year-old players. Miguel Cabrera had his last good year at 33. Albert Pujols, if we’re being generous, had his at 34. Andruw Jones famously put up Hall of Fame worthy numbers in his 20s, then collapsed in his age 30 season. Even Derek Jeter regressed sharply at age 36 (though credit is due; he avoided further regression as a 37 and 38-year-old).

Having this sense of perspective is important. Sometimes, a once-great player can still be a useful contributor even when they don’t play up to their old standards. Randy Johnson was a key piece for the 2005 Yankees, for instance, even if he wasn’t as dominant for us as he had been with Arizona and Seattle.

It’s a shame that the Yankees did not get to enjoy the best baseball Josh Donaldson had to offer. But I’m also not going to complain about a 36-year-old who played great defense while throwing in 28 doubles and 10% walk rate.