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  • Josh Donaldson is Better Than You Think


    Cody Pirkl

    It seems like a disappointing 2021 for the team has spilled into feelings of disappointment toward players who don’t deserve it. Josh Donaldson is perhaps the best example of this. Even for die-hard Twins fans, it’s easy to miss how impressive Donaldson still was in 2021.

    Image courtesy of Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

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    2020 was admittedly a bad start to the four-year, $92m contract the Twins gave Josh Donaldson after whiffing on a big-name starting pitcher the offseason before. The former MVP missed more than half of the 60-game season with injuries including the best of three playoff series that ended in a whimper from the offense. Per game, however, Donaldson was the same star hitter he always has been, and he showed that across a much bigger body of work in 2021.

    For those unfamiliar with MLBs use of Statcast measurements, these numbers read in percentiles, meaning Donaldson is in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity, 95th percentile in barrel percentage, etc. In most offensive measurements, Donaldson’s raw skills were among the top 5-10% in all of baseball. For a season many considered disappointing, I think such a strong showing deserves some context.

    As you can see, Donaldson actually bested fan-favorite Nelson Cruz in many raw measurements in 2021 according to Statcast. It’s interesting to look at considering one of these players is discussed as the cornerstone of whatever lineup he’s in while the other is being discussed as a possible salary dump. Why might that be?

    2020 Left a Bitter Taste

    2020 was a season that likely had the front office wishing for a do-over on the largest free-agent contract the team had ever handed out. There was an understandable amount of frustration as the biggest addition to the team was nowhere to be seen for most of a season where the Twins captured their second consecutive division title only to be swept out of the playoffs once again.

    To make matters worse, those feelings of frustration had gasoline thrown onto the fire when Donaldson injured his hamstring on opening day 2021 and missed a chunk of time. For many, their minds were made up. Donaldson’s availability down the stretch was an incredible accomplishment, however, and showed that while his injury concerns are very much a reality, he’s still capable of being an everyday player across a full season. To once again make a Cruz vs. Donaldson comparison, DH Nelson Cruz played in 140 games compared to Donaldson’s 135 in 2021 which may surprise even the biggest Twins fans to hear.

    2021 Was Unlucky

    The ongoing joke in 2021 was the continued use of the phrase “bad luck” as so much went wrong that it’s impossible to chalk it all up to misfortune. For Donaldson however, we have Statcast measurements saying his raw offensive ability hasn’t declined at all at age 35. His .247 average was much lower than his .268 expected batting average. His .475 slugging percentage was much lower than his .541 expected slugging. He also hit four fewer home runs than expected given the way he impacts the ball. His speed on the bases may be a partial explanation for these discrepancies but his hampered legs can only explain away a portion of these gaps in expected performance.

    If you aren’t a believer in expected stats, it’s still difficult to look back and be disappointed in his body of work that included a triple slash of .247/.352/.475, good for 24% above league average. Repeating that line would be just fine for 2022, but he appears to still have the physical capabilities to garner MVP votes if he can remain on the field as he did in 2021.

    So why point out Donaldson’s impressive performance in 2021? To be honest, he doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves. His impact would have essentially erased a disappointing 2020 in the eyes of fans had he performed exactly the same and the team hadn’t crumbled. Statcast says he could have performed even better.

    He’s talked about like he’s over the hill and his contract needs to be dumped before it’s too late so the Twins can improve. In reality, however, Donaldson is probably one of the three most important pieces of the Twins offense in 2022. Without Nelson Cruz, Donaldson is an important figure on the team not just on the field, but as a veteran-hitting savant who can have a huge impact on the upcoming prospects.

    It’s entirely possible that Donaldson’s health in 2022 could go the way of 2020 rather than 2021. That being said, at bat for at bat there still aren’t a ton of players you want in the heart of your lineup over Josh Donaldson, and he’s still a tantalizing talent that should have Twins fans looking forward to the beginning of the 2022 season.

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    Nice article, Cody.  Donaldson is a lightening rod for fan criticism, probably for reasons you mentioned, but also because he has an edge to his personality and can be outspoken on issues which some fans don't appreciate.  I like his competitiveness and his edge as I think this team needs the intensity he brings every day.  I am among those who think trading him, especially if we have to eat salary, makes no sense unless the return is exceptional.  Buxton, Polanco, Donaldson, Kirilloff, Arraez and Garver form a good offensive core,  Plus, with Miranda, Lewis, Larnach and others as possible additons, this team should score runs.  Hopefully the front office is right about our young starters, or have a solid plan to acquire a good arm or two.

     

     

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    The dude can flat out hit. To take the Cruz comparison a step further - Nelson Cruz continued to stay productive on offense well into his late 30s. Why can't Donaldson keep mashing for the next two or three years? Some of the other negative talk directed at Donaldson is due to his large salary and people having unrealistic expectations attached to that salary. 

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    I couldn’t agree more with the post’s supposition that JD is better than many of us couch GMs think he is. Super points made in the post. Thank you. 
     

    Having said that, which of these statements, considering objectively and dispassionately, do we disagree with:

    1. JD is a really, really good baseball player, better than people think, and FOs across the league realize that.

    2. The universal DH would make JD more attractive to a larger number of teams. 

    3. JD, at this point in his career, is a likely (possibly accelerating) descending asset as opposed to an ascending asset.

    4. The Twins window in 2022 is more closed than open (see the projected starting staff and the FOs aggressive effort to address it).

    5. JD is blocking our most MLB ready talent who’s development through innings and ABs is critical to reopening our window as early as 2023.

    6. The $45MM or so we owe him over the next two years could be better applied to the talent we need to accumulate to better compete when our new window reopens. 

    7. His salary is too high to justify being a full time DH and occasional corner IFer.
     

    If the answer is that we realistically can’t disagree with any of these, then the answer is to sell high, trade JD and build for the future. IMHO, I’d move him now off of his excellent second half and his good health; however, I’d understand if we rolled the dice a bit based on how the season starts and his performance, and then reassessed at the trade deadline,

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    Don’t trade him now!  
    If the Twins are in the hunt at the deadline (presuming this season isn’t dead- CBA?), then Josh Donaldson will probably be an important piece (at 3B and part-time DH) to keep for the season and post-season.  
    if the Twins are out of the picture, then trade him prior to the deadline. 
    One caveat: this strategy only works if JD stays healthy and is productive.  

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    I think Donaldson is a good player, but I think this article overstates his case.  I like him, but I do not see him as a superstar which his salary would suggest.  There were games where he was wonderful and others where he was just another player on the field.   The question I would pose is this - what would our record have been if Donaldson was not a Twin and Arraez, Polanco, Miranda took turns at 3B the last two years?  Did he move the bar? Did he keep us from sinking further (if possible)?  I like him, but I would rather have Berrios or another really good pitcher (not a rebound candidate).  

    Conclusion - a very good player, but I would not hesitate to trade him for a good return. 

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    1 hour ago, Nashvilletwin said:

    I couldn’t agree more with the post’s supposition that JD is better than many of us couch GMs think he is. Super points made in the post. Thank you. 
     

    Having said that, which of these statements, considering objectively and dispassionately, do we disagree with:

    1. JD is a really, really good baseball player, better than people think, and FOs across the league realize that.

    2. The universal DH would make JD more attractive to a larger number of teams. 

    3. JD, at this point in his career, is a likely (possibly accelerating) descending asset as opposed to an ascending asset.

    4. The Twins window in 2022 is more closed than open (see the projected starting staff and the FOs aggressive effort to address it).

    5. JD is blocking our most MLB ready talent who’s development through innings and ABs is critical to reopening our window as early as 2023.

    6. The $45MM or so we owe him over the next two years could be better applied to the talent we need to accumulate to better compete when our new window reopens. 

    7. His salary is too high to justify being a full time DH and occasional corner IFer.
     

    If the answer is that we realistically can’t disagree with any of these, then the answer is to sell high, trade JD and build for the future. IMHO, I’d move him now off of his excellent second half and his good health; however, I’d understand if we rolled the dice a bit based on how the season starts and his performance, and then reassessed at the trade deadline,

    Good assessment Nashville. Thanks.

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    1 hour ago, strumdatjag said:

    Don’t trade him now!  
    If the Twins are in the hunt at the deadline (presuming this season isn’t dead- CBA?), then Josh Donaldson will probably be an important piece (at 3B and part-time DH) to keep for the season and post-season.  
    if the Twins are out of the picture, then trade him prior to the deadline. 
    One caveat: this strategy only works if JD stays healthy and is productive.  

     Would you bet the farm that Donaldson will remain healthy? Not me. Trade Donaldson while we can. His legs are going to only get worse based mainly on his multiple years as a catcher. 

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    The reason people more broadly are down on Donaldson is actually very simple: he got hurt in game one and missed 10 games right at the start of the season. That set the tone for people's perception of him as an aging, injured player for the whole year especially as the season imploded early and his absence certainly didn't help. The reality is, he only missed 17 games the rest of the way, many of which were simply regular days off designed to keep him in the lineup.

    Donaldson was a very good player and worth the money he was being paid, even DHing a chunk of the time. He's still got the ability to hit well enough again this season to be a valuable member of the team, especially if the team can manage his legs well enough out the gate to keep him playing 140-150 games. And considering where the payroll stands, I wouldn't deal him just to dump salary. Let him split time with Miranda at 3B this year, let the kid learn how to play 3B from a guy who has been one of the best at it, and let him transition to a little more DH. He's a thumper in the lineup and his bat plays, even if his defense is slipping from elite to just solid.

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    JD remains a vey good MLB player. I enjoy watching him rake and this article does a good job providing evidence for his hitting prowess. I get that the Twins are a particularly payroll conscious franchise so that factors in to JD's value as it were.

    But to me how does a team become a consistent winner if it has to continually contemplate moving on from good to very good players as a result of payroll calculations?

    Sigh.

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    Donaldson is the Kirk Cousins of Vikings fan.  The easy one to blame for everything.  He's still a solid player, and trading him now, when he's a negative asset would assure the Twins would not receive anything near "fair trade value."  In my opinion, JD is not blocking our prized rookie Miranda...Arraez is !!  Arraez has the 2nd highest trade value among the Twins starting lineup.  HE should be traded for pitching.  let Donaldson play some 3B, DH and maybe even work in some 1B.  Get all you can out of him this year and if a trade makes sense at the deadline, do it.  Otherwise, track how Sano is doing.  We aren't keeping BOTH Sano and Donaldson after 2022.  MAYBE we keep one of them.  I think it will probably be Donaldson.  

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    IMO Donaldson is suffering from the same perception that Mauer did after signing his large contract - that his production will never be good enough to justify the contract.  As long as it is perceived that, like Mauer, the Twins were not able to pay for/sign other players to help them win, then Donaldson will never "live up to" his contract.

    For another example of this - see Cousins, Kirk...

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    Donaldson is hands down the best hitter the Twins have. His performance so far has absolutely lived up to the contract. The Twins would never compete to sign a player of Donaldson's caliber if it wasn't for the injury concerns. His profile gets closer to $26mil a year if he's a consistent 145ish games a year player, even at his age. Those numbers are the best of the best.

    Getting more time at DH will hopefully help him stay in the lineup more often. It worked in the last couple months of the 2021 season. 

    Not opposed to trading him, like anyone, I just seriously doubt the team can get even reasonable value for him. Trading him away opens a huge void in the middle of the lineup. I'd rather salary dump Sano if that is the goal. 

    Like Mauer, Donaldson's contract is not really preventing the Twins from getting better. Even the most Pohlad-friendly budget estimations show the Twins have at least $40mil to spend on the 2022 team. 

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    His overall offense was not the problem.  It is 1, his drop in defense, which was a main reason we targeted him because he was going to be good defense at 3rd.  Now, he is below average at 3rd and most likely will be playing a lot of time at DH.  His slugging is lower than expected in part because he cannot run.  I know he is choosing to not run to stay on the field because his calfs could act up anytime he runs faster than mock turtle.  

    You can live with no speed if he starts hitting more HR, not that 26 is terrible, but he hits at top of line up and will fully clog the bases.  I will never want him on base in front of Buxton because that will take away Buxton's speed if Donaldson is on base.  I would like to see Josh hitting after Buxton though.

    I think people were just down on Donaldson because he was a big contract, but not thinking about he is pretty much what we were hoping for on offense, just taking a step back on defense is a big issue and his complete lack of running to keep him healthy. 

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    Yeah I think this article is a good reminder that Donaldson performed pretty much as expected and I agree that even for myself the main reason I have been down on him were injury ravaged 2020 and injury start to 2021.

    I still think a trade deadline deal would be best for the Twins though as I don't think he fits the timeline for this team anymore.  He was brought in as help now piece and he wasn't really there for the team in 2020 and we crumbled last year and don't look to have good enough pitching this coming year.  I still think it might be time to move on.

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    15 minutes ago, Dman said:

    Yeah I think this article is a good reminder that Donaldson performed pretty much as expected and I agree that even for myself the main reason I have been down on him were injury ravaged 2020 and injury start to 2021.

    I still think a trade deadline deal would be best for the Twins though as I don't think he fits the timeline for this team anymore.  He was brought in as help now piece and he wasn't really there for the team in 2020 and we crumbled last year and don't look to have good enough pitching this coming year.  I still think it might be time to move on.

    A deadline deal might make sense, in part because if he's hitting well (and I think he will) and healthy then he could actually bring back an asset and not just salary relief. But right now there doesn't seem to be any kind of market for him that wouldn't net the Twins anything more than salary relief and a roster spot (and roster spots are an important asset, to be sure) and right now I don't think salary relief helps anyone other than Jim Pohlad, especially since we've done a fairly poor job of allocating dollars to this point as is.

    The thing on that too is...maybe the team surprises. No expectations, but a pretty darn good lineup, a couple of young pitchers step up immediately, and who knows? Donaldson's bat could be an important part of that. Holding for a deadline deal gives you better options, I think.

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    I like Donaldson as a player.

    The only reason I'd move him if there is an interested team, is because the Twins inaction during free agency informed me not to take the 2022 season too seriously.

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    21 hours ago, puckstopper1 said:

    IMO Donaldson is suffering from the same perception that Mauer did after signing his large contract - that his production will never be good enough to justify the contract.  As long as it is perceived that, like Mauer, the Twins were not able to pay for/sign other players to help them win, then Donaldson will never "live up to" his contract.

    For another example of this - see Cousins, Kirk...

    Ha...I came here to write this same thing (including Kirk.)  His contract is an easy target to people who don't notice his solid stats.  But I think the other aspect is we were hoping for elite defense still for the first two years and instead we got closer to above average (or average).  And the declining speed makes Cruz and Arraez look decently fast.  Kind of like how some argued "Why doesn't Mauer hit more homeruns" or how Mauer lost value when going to 1B instead of C.

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    2 hours ago, jmlease1 said:

    A deadline deal might make sense, in part because if he's hitting well (and I think he will) and healthy then he could actually bring back an asset and not just salary relief. But right now there doesn't seem to be any kind of market for him that wouldn't net the Twins anything more than salary relief and a roster spot (and roster spots are an important asset, to be sure) and right now I don't think salary relief helps anyone other than Jim Pohlad, especially since we've done a fairly poor job of allocating dollars to this point as is.

    The thing on that too is...maybe the team surprises. No expectations, but a pretty darn good lineup, a couple of young pitchers step up immediately, and who knows? Donaldson's bat could be an important part of that. Holding for a deadline deal gives you better options, I think.

    Yeah we think a like.  I just have this feeling that maybe just maybe the pitching they have plays well and gives them a shot at taking the division.  I know it is a long shot but like you said the offense appears pretty solid and Donaldson is a big part of that if he stays healthy.  If the Twins are in it I wouldn't rush to get rid of Donaldson.  The question is will they be in it.

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    3 hours ago, jmlease1 said:

    A deadline deal might make sense, in part because if he's hitting well (and I think he will) and healthy then he could actually bring back an asset and not just salary relief.

    This is the best way to state the proposition of trading him. If he can actually bring back an asset or two, a Nelson Cruz-like package, then deal him. Otherwise, you keep him.

    Yes, that's aiming high. His bat is worth keeping unless a couple prospects that slide into the Twins top 20 is the return.

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    For those wanting to trade Donaldson, what are you expecting as a return? (a couple of flyers that are 4-5 years away or another teams prospect that they probably don't want to put on their 40 man anyway?) Also I read his money could be spent better in other places, but there is already more then enough money to be spent but wasn't. Sure he is probably overpaid but the over pay amount is probably the amount the Twins will have to eat anyway.

    IMO if the twins feel the need to trade Donaldson because of salary, all fans should be done with them. If they are willing to trade Donaldson and eat money to open up 3rd for Miranda, I could understand that logic, but their back up plan better not involve Arraez at 3B and Gordon at SS, because they leaves them with NO plan C.

    My final thoughts are trading him would be a HUGE negative on this Front Office, How could they sign him to a 4 year contract and be in a rebuilding mode in year 3 and have to eat a bunch of that contract and lets be honest the year 2 was already a huge negative on this FO. Now if a couple of this pitching prospects are the real deal and our offense isn't good because we traded away a possible 4 WAR player for a rookie that ends up struggling, again how much worse does this FO want to look.

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