Yankees breathe a sigh of relief with Josh Donaldson gone

A miniature caricature of Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson

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Josh Donaldson‘s tumultuous period with the Yankees has come to a close. On Tuesday, the team officially parted ways with the 37-year-old third baseman, who had been sidelined due to a significant calf strain, rendering him ineligible to return until mid-September and placing him on the 60-day injured list.

Josh Donaldson’s difficulties on the field have contributed to the Yankees’ descent to the bottom of the standings, laying bare more profound concerns with the team’s overall lineup composition. Despite his aspirations to make a comeback within the current season, and notwithstanding manager Aaron Boone’s persistent optimism about the possibility, the Yankees have now shifted their focus toward the team’s future trajectory.

Given the lack of forthcoming opportunities for Josh Donaldson to secure playing time (or occupy a spot on the active roster) once he became eligible to come off the injured list, the Yankees have opted to release him. This move allows him the chance to explore options with other teams. In the event that there is interest in recruiting Josh Donaldson, interested teams must finalize their agreements by Friday to ensure his eligibility for inclusion on their postseason rosters.

Back in March 2022, when the Yankees acquired Josh Donaldson from the Twins, they willingly took on the financial commitment of $50 million over two years, even considering his advanced age of 36 and 37 during the contract. This decision was underpinned by Josh Donaldson’s noteworthy exit velocity in 2021 (measuring 94.1 mph), surpassing his velocity in 2015 when he clinched the American League MVP title (measuring 92.5 mph).

“I’d like to say thank you to everyone for the love and support over the years!!” Josh Donaldson tweeted on Tuesday. “I’ve had the opportunity to play with some great teammates and organizations. I wish nothing but the best to the New York Yankees.”

Josh Donaldson left a lesson for the Yankees

However, the fate that befell Josh Donaldson—his release by the Yankees on Tuesday, marking him as the franchise’s third-least successful batter in history—serves as a valuable lesson in the cautious consideration teams must exercise when assessing the interplay between exit velocity and advancing age.

Josh Donaldson makes his Yankees pitching debut on July 1, 2023.

Throughout Josh Donaldson’s struggles over the past biennium, the Yankees consistently highlighted his exit velocity (measuring at 90.7 last year and 92.8 this year), almost implying an imminent substantial correction to his lackluster performance at the plate as a Yankee (.207/.293/.385). Only Walter Blair (from 1907 to ’11) and Bill Robinson (from ’67 to ’69) registered lower batting averages while amassing a minimum of 650 plate appearances with the Yankees.

Exit velocity merely offers insight into the forcefulness with which a player connects with the ball during contact. This year, Joey Gallo (93.3) boasts markedly superior exit velocity compared to Luis Arraez (87.9, falling below the MLB average of 89.1).

Upon closer observation, Josh Donaldson’s famed bat speed was evidently waning. In his earlier years, Josh Donaldson played a pivotal role in revolutionizing the game by spearheading the advent of elevated launch angles with his intricate, rapid-fire swing characterized by vigorous hand movement and a pronounced leg kick. Yet, as he advanced into his mid-30s, all those exertions failed to yield the same swift and efficient outcomes.

An analysis of Josh Donaldson’s performance against fastballs since 2015 (excluding cutters), particularly those reaching speeds of 95 mph or more, presents a stark decline in his productivity over the past couple of years. In the current season, Josh Donaldson managed just one hit against the 63 fastballs exceeding 95 mph that he encountered. This reality constituted the genuine narrative underlying his struggles, overshadowing the significance of his exit velocity.

 Source: Statcast

Could the Yankees have foreseen such a drastic downturn? Perhaps not to that exact extent, but their gamble on seasoned players coincided unfavorably. The recent rule changes prioritize agility, swiftness, and coverage. New York entrusted a lineup that boasted the highest average age among position players. Adapting to the regression of Josh Donaldson alone presents a challenge, but when combined with the regressions of other veterans, the predicament magnifies.

PlayerTeamAVG
Taylor WallsRays.168
Joey GalloTwins.185
Patrick WisdomCubs.192
Max MuncyDodgers.198
Josh DonaldsonYankees.200

The Yankees found themselves ensnared in a dated approach to the game. Seasoned players like Josh Donaldson are now less effective than ever in the era of wild card competition, a reality underscored by their performance over the past two seasons.

CategoryRank in Full Seasons Since 1995
Hits1,120 (prorated)Fewest
AVG.2272nd-lowest
OBP.3022nd-lowest
Plate appearances5,383 (prorated)2nd-fewest
Runs569 (prorated)3rd-fewest
OPS.7106th-lowest

Josh Donaldson’s fall from grace

During his prime, Josh Donaldson stood as an imposing batter, admired by his peers for both his approach and tactical prowess at the plate. Between 2013 and 2016, he consistently ranked within the top eight contenders for the MVP award, securing the title in 2015. His influence led fellow hitters to seek guidance from private hitting mentors outside of team affiliations, aiming to elevate their ball-launching techniques. Over the span from 2015 to 2019, the proportion of balls hit in the air (including fly balls and line drives) climbed from 54.7% to 57.1%.

Yankees' Josh Donaldson ducks away from a pitch by Orioles' Jordan Lyles on May 18, 2022, in Baltimore.
AP

The decline unfolded rapidly. With his recent release, Josh Donaldson now faces a brief window of opportunity to join another team and qualify for postseason participation. Meanwhile, the Yankees still grapple with the concerns posed by Stanton, Rizzo, and LeMahieu. On average, an MLB batter holds a .241 batting average against fastballs that clock in at 95 mph or higher. However, Stanton (.203), Rizzo (.194), and LeMahieu (.163) all significantly trail this norm when confronting high-velocity pitches.

At this juncture, the most the Yankees can glean from Josh Donaldson is a valuable lesson: Place your trust in what your senses perceive and your eyes witness.

Before acquiring Josh Donaldson, they were well aware, as was no secret in the baseball realm, that he carried a reputation for having a somewhat challenging personality. Despite this, the Yankees chose to overlook that aspect and proceeded with the trade.

They then observed Josh Donaldson’s struggles for over a season, interspersed with injury-related periods, where he grappled to make meaningful contact with the baseball. This observation, too, was largely brushed aside.

The rationale behind Brian Cashman and his baseball operations team disregarding these clear indications should serve as an instructive primer on behaviors that have proven detrimental to the Yankees, as they have regressed this year into a non-competitive status. The pivotal question now is whether they will heed these lessons from what they have perceived and witnessed, or if they are destined to perpetuate these errors.

Yankees suffer with Josh Donaldson

The Yankees observed Josh Donaldson’s struggle to make contact both last season and this season. Nonetheless, they continually emphasized exit velocities as evidence that his lack of success was merely a result of bad luck. Yet, there comes a point when visual assessment becomes equally important. Undoubtedly, Josh Donaldson occasionally managed to launch a well-struck ball amidst a series of futile plate appearances.

Josh Donaldson after his Game 1 homer fiasco
USA TODAY Sports

However, more significantly, the Yankees consistently declare their annual aim is to secure a World Series victory. This declaration becomes difficult to believe when one recalls Josh Donaldson’s 16 strikeouts in 36 plate appearances during the last postseason. It was an unequivocal sign that he was yet another Yankee unable to thrive against the strategic planning and pitching intensity characteristic of playoff-caliber games.

Regrettably, regarding what might be deemed one of Cashman’s least successful trades, the Yankees find themselves without immediate remedies. Yet, there remains an opportunity to gain insight by remaining attentive and receptive. Learning from this experience requires a combination of keeping one’s eyes open and ears attuned.

“Basically just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Boone said Tuesday at Comerica Park. “Give him the option, or the possibility, of even catching on with someone. Just felt like it was the right thing to do that now as opposed to continuing to drag it out.”

Boone clarified that Josh Donaldson did not request his release.

This transaction formally concludes Josh Donaldson’s lackluster stint donning pinstripes, commencing when he joined the team on the cusp of spring training in 2022. His arrival was part of a trade that involved Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt, while Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela were sent to the Twins.

josh-donaldson-new-york-yankees
USA TODAY Sports

Across segments of two seasons with the Yankees, subsequent to his arrival through that ill-fated trade, Josh Donaldson struggled, amassing a mere .207 batting average along with a .678 OPS. His contributions included 25 home runs and 180 strikeouts in 666 plate appearances.

“I’d say a lot of good things about him,” Boone said. “He’s a gamer, he cares, he’s smart, he brings a lot to the table. I still think physically there’s a lot left in there. … I have a lot of respect for him.”

But Yankees fans choose to deviate.

What do you think? Leave your comment below.

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