Not everybody makes a smooth adjustment to life in New York City. The daily pressures, stresses and overwhelming nature of the city can be very unforgiving, even more so for people living in the public eye.
Josh Donaldson can certainly relate.
In his first year with the Yankees, the three-time All-Star had the worst full offensive season of his career. His on-base percentage, wRC+ and walk rate were all his lowest since his 75-game season in 2012, when he still had rookie status. Donaldson has played 1,333 big-league games now, and while he still provided sparkling defense at the hot corner, his bat left many fans pulling their hair out and wondering if any other team could be suckered into trading for him.
The other bold-faced bullet point under Donaldson’s name — right next to his “Jackie” debacle with White Sox’s shortstop Tim Anderson, during which neither his teammates nor his manager supported him — is the $25 million he’s owed next season. The Yankees agreed to take on that salary in order to get rid of Gary Sanchez and acquire Isiah Kiner-Falefa, a trade that made less and less sense with each Donaldson strikeout and IKF defensive blunder. Now, they’re staring at the very likely possibility that Donaldson is not only cooked, but that very few people invested in the team want him around anyway.
A few statistical marvels jump out when analyzing Donaldson’s juiceless season. According to FanGraphs, the sneering third baseman chased balls out of the strike zone at a higher clip than he ever had before. He let it rip on 32.7% of the pitches he saw outside the zone, a major jump from his career mark of 26.7%. Understandably, this goes hand-in-hand with his steep decline in walks and spike in strikeouts as well. From 2013 to 2021 — when Mike Trout was the only player in baseball worth more Wins Above Replacement — Donaldson posted a walk percentage of at least 10% in each and every season. It finally dipped below that watermark in 2022, settling at 9.9% as his strikeout rate swelled to a career-high 27.1%.
Swinging at bad pitches is a surefire way to have a bad time at the plate. So is halting something that made you a great hitter for a decade. During his prime, Donaldson showcased some of the best opposite-field power of any right-handed hitter in the game. In his 2015 MVP campaign, 23.6% of his batted balls went the other way. In 2019, when he enjoyed a late-career surge in Atlanta, that number rose to 24.7%. In his first year in the Bronx, though, Donaldson used the opposite field just 17% of the time he put the ball in play.
The effects of that were somewhat predictable. Playing in Yankee Stadium for half his games — a venue where he only hit three home runs to right or right-center field, which is hard to believe given the stadium’s dimensions — Donaldson still somehow managed to post his first sub-.400 slugging percentage in ten years. Not taking advantage of the short porch zapped much of Donaldson’s power numbers and led to just 6.5% of his home fly balls going over the wall, which is hard to do at Yankee Stadium.
For context, the league average home run to fly ball ratio across all major league parks in 2022 was 11.4%. So, even when limiting the data to just his plate appearances taken in a notoriously homer-friendly park, Donaldson fell well short of the league average. Aaron Hicks, who by most measures had an even more miserable offensive output than Donaldson last year, still had an easier time getting his Yankee Stadium fly balls to leave the park. Hicks’ 6.8% home run to fly ball ratio at home narrowly edged out Donaldson’s. It wasn’t like Donaldson was having trouble getting the ball in the air either. His 38.7% fly ball percentage was identical to his career clip, this batch just didn’t carry like they used to.
That is obviously concerning for a number of reasons and invites questions about whether the natural effects of aging have simply nullified much of his ability. Part of the allure surrounding Donaldson when he showed up in Yankee camp was his outrageous exit velocities from 2021. His average exit velocity from that season with the Twins ranked in the 99th percentile of major league hitters. Aaron Judge, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Giancarlo Stanton were the only qualified hitters who toasted the ball harder than Donaldson.
In 2022, Donaldson’s average exit velocity was still respectable — he ended in the 81st percentile — but he wasn’t nearly as consistent with it. Using Statcast’s measurements, his 52.7% hard-hit rate (the percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater) from 2021 placed him in the league’s 95th percentile. The 43.2% from 2022, meanwhile, was good for the 68th percentile. Typically one of the first signs of a hitter being washed is the loss of their bat speed. Bat speed generates a good amount of pop, and with several of Donaldson’s stats showing that he’s lost much of that pop, things aren’t looking great for his already subterranean approval rating among Yankee fans.
Combine all that with his bizarre, grating antics and 5-for-29 postseason line, there aren’t that many saving graces for Donaldson heading into his age-37 season. At least there are some clear areas of improvement to hone in on (better plate discipline, pushing the ball to right field more often) as he keeps the seat warm for the next great Yankee third baseman, whoever that may be.