Many people are down on Donaldson thanks to his good, but not exactly great performance at the plate this year compared with his $21MM payday over 2021 and still guaranteed for the next two seasons. The expectation is his legs have all but given up with him coasting into his mid 30s on a big contract as another aging star fading out. The thing is, his batted ball data says Donaldson was absolutely getting the shaft. Donaldson is actually having a career year in terms of the metrics. He’s annihilating the baseball with the best barrel rate and exit velocity of his career, he’s launching it at an optimal angle, he’s striking out less than he has since 2016 and still walking in the top 10% of all baseball. The expected markers say Donaldson should be performing at the plate like his 5+ WAR seasons of old, but the results just weren’t there. Is it luck, is it the shift, the lead plates in his shoes or high speed worm burners instead of towering fly balls coming off Donaldson’s bat?
Before we get into the analytics, what were Donaldson’s results compared to his peak years from 2015-2019 and his career averages? Looking at Fangraphs data:
The glaring issue is really the batting average which drives both the AVG and SLG components of OPS, and there’s good news in regard to Donaldson’s results on the surface here. He had the lowest BABIP of his entire career last year by 10 points at .268 with his previous low of .278 coming way back in 2014 before he turned into the MVP caliber hitter he became. Donaldson’s BABIP was also nearly 30 points lower than his career BABIP of .295. There are factors which influence BABIP from running speed to batted ball type to exit velocity and launch angles and as hitters push into their 30s, sometimes their eyes and legs show it. Swing and miss increases, walks taper off, balls don’t pop off the bat like they used to and that extra time to get to first base turns one time hits and doubles into outs and singles. Donaldson’s walk and strikeout rates remained right at his prime levels so it seems unlikely his reactions and eyes have aged. Let’s look into the rest.
2021 vs. Peak years of 2015-2019 reveals line drive rates (17.1% vs 19.1%), ground ball rates (43.0% vs. 42.1%) and fly ball rates (39.9% vs. 38.8%) are right where they should be, but Fangraphs shows a potentially insignificant increase in pop up rates (12.9% vs. 10.6%) and drop in HR/FB rate (18.6% vs. 22.4%). Pop up rate increases and decreases in fly balls which turn into home runs can come from luck or be used as a signal a player just isn’t hitting the ball as well. Is Donaldson hitting the ball as hard as he used to? Yes, actually, even harder. Using Statcast data on Baseball Savant, Donaldson’s 94.1mph average exit velocity ranked 4th in MLB and his 17.4% barrel rate per batted ball event ranked 8th in MLB. Donaldson’s 52.7% hard hit rate from Statcast (balls hit over 95mph) was good for 11th best in MLB where Fangraphs had his 40.2% hard hit rate ranked 17th across all qualified MLB hitters using the much tougher Baseball Info Solutions algorithm. The bottom line? Donaldson was an elite MLB batter in terms of walk rate, exit velocity, hard hit rate and barrel rate. He also had a near ideal 14.6% launch angle. Even looking into Donaldson’s average fly ball distance didn’t reveal any obvious changes from his peak years. Based on the advanced batted ball data and metrics, nobody could be as angry about the results as Josh Donaldson himself. He was hitting the ball like an MVP, but getting results which don’t even look All Star level. Plotting Donaldson’s batted ball data out against the rest of MLB…
It's clear, Donaldson is putting all but the other elite MLB batters to shame in the way the ball rockets off the bat. Donaldson’s numbers are all obviously heads above the top 10% batter thresholds. There aren’t any accidents when it comes to ranks… and about those ranks, Donaldson’s page on Baseball Savant has enough red marks (top 10% in MLB) on it since 2015, including this year, to make you think the website was broken.
That said, even if a player is hitting a ball hard, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’d be expected to produce at a high level. Hitting a whole bunch of 100mph worm burners isn’t going to do much for a player’s OPS. So how about those expected results? They’re impressive and Donaldson seems to be the victim of bad luck right across the board. If you’re still not into wOBA, .385 would probably correspond with an OPS+ or wRC+ in the mid 140s. For calculating xOPS, I used xBA + Donaldson's actual walks and hit by pitch data along with his xSLG.
Of course, some players simply don’t seem to track consistently with metrics. There are pitchers who routinely and significantly outperform or underperform their FIPs, for example. What about Donaldson? The graph below paints a very clear picture. His xOPS has typically been better than expected, but his xwOBA is almost always pretty close to expectations. Keep in mind that 2018 and 2020 were small sample size years for Donaldson. This past season was the first time in his career that Donaldson was way off his expected wOBA, and it was the first time his actual production was significantly below his expected wOBA.
The next item up for me is always the shift. According to Fangraphs’ data, Donaldson hit .289 against the shift this season, but his overall production against the shift wasn’t great at wRC+ 81 in a somewhat small sample size. It seems like his walk rate and ISO tanked. Since we are still dealing with quite a bit of randomness in regard to Fangraphs’ shift reporting and small sample size, I don’t think there’s much to take away from it. That said, Fangraphs showed a higher shift rate deployed against Donaldson than he’d ever seen in his career by a mile even though Donaldson isn’t strictly a pull hitter. Considering Donaldson was certainly effective at recording hits against the shift, I don’t think the shift is the reason for the lack of production.
Finally, how about speed? Well here’s one place where Donaldson is in obvious and serious decline. Being one of the slowest players in all of baseball can have a serious negative impact on batting average and slugging percentage. Back in Donaldson’s heyday, his sprint speed was in the 26.5 ft/sec range, putting him into a pretty solid average runner category. It’s dropped precipitously the last few years placing him as one of the slowest runners in all of MLB this year with a miserable 24.5 ft/sec. It takes about 4 seconds on average to run from the plate to first base. In 2021 Donaldson was 10 feet and 2 strides away from the bag when 2016 Donaldson or this year’s Brent Rooker would have crossed it. The gaps continue to increase on an attempt at a two bagger. Donaldson reaches 2nd base in his prime 17 feet ahead of today’s Donaldson. Doubles have to be no-doubters for 2021 Donaldson. This plays into defense, too as Donaldson’s range has fallen from average-ish to very poor this year. Fangraphs UZR indicates Donaldson was unplayable at 3B this year with a UZR/150 of -19.4 due almost exclusively to his fall off in range. Baseball Reference, as expected, graded him much better using Range Factor as the shift artificially hides how poorly Twins fielders actually perform by providing Twins fielders with more opportunities to field balls which would have otherwise slipped through the gaps.
So what was Donaldson missing from his production which he should have seen? Was it the missing doubles from Donaldson scrambling down the basepaths like a car running a dragstrip dragging two flat tires? Seemingly, no. Donaldson managed 26 two baggers; maybe a tick higher than typical career expected rates. Honestly, it seems like singles and home runs are what’s lacking. Looking at the hit spray chart, I counted 11 doubles which could very well have been home runs, depending on the field where Donaldson hit them this year. Baseball Savant’s expected home runs for one thing sat at 30. That correlates with how many home runs he would have hit at the average MLB ballpark given his individual, real fly balls. If he played all his games in San Diego, he would have hit 36 bombs. Surprisingly, Target Field seems to be a poor location for Donaldson this year with just 27 expected based on his batted ball data. Considering Target Field doesn’t typically punish right handed hitters like it does lefties with that tall right field wall, I’d chalk this up to a straight up fluke. It’s worth noting a few unlucky doubles turning into home runs helps Donaldson somewhat, but his iron boots would prevent him from wheeling around 1st to stretch that single out for an extra base so some stat lines are likely to drop off from his absolute prime, which is to be expected as Donaldson navigates through his mid 30s.
Let’s summarize this up. Donaldson his crushing the baseball and he had the worst luck he’s ever had in his career in multiple ways. From hits which should have been home runs to balls having eyes for pillowy soft gloves instead of green fields, nothing seemed to go right. His batted ball data is undeniably elite and he’s hitting the ball as well as he’s hit it in his entire career, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in decline. Seemingly chronic, frustrating calf injuries and age have sapped his speed to diminish his defensive value and undoubtedly stolen some extra bases or even a couple singles. The Twins are likely looking to move Donaldson this offseason, even if they have to eat some of his contract, but it may be foolhardy to sell low on a player who may well have a couple more 4-5 WAR seasons left. There are other DH options taking up space on the roster who might be less expensive to move and likely to produce less at the plate. If Donaldson crushes baseballs yet again next year, it would be unfathomable for the bad luck to continue and nothing would be crazy frustrating to watch Donaldson start a couple more All Star games wearing the wrong uniform while the Twins pay for it.