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Why Josh Donaldson Sucked in 2018

The Josh Donaldson free agent profile is a confusing one. Donaldson is coming into free agency this offseason, and, up until this last season, most were expecting Donaldson to net a handsome contract. Unfortunately, Donaldson spent a large percentage of 2018 on the DL. Multiple DL stints are not ideal for any player entering free agency, especially one who will be 33years old next opening day. Last year, Donaldson earned $23 million. Before opening day of 2018, a contract with yearly earnings of at least $23 million a year didn’t seem out of the question. And maybe it shouldn’t be.

I’ll be excluding 2010 from the discussion of slash lines and statistics in general. 2010 was a cup of coffee for Donaldson—14 games—and is not a fair year to use when analyzing him.

Let’s look at Donaldson’s slash: .246 avg/.352 obp/.449 slg. All of these numbers are below his career averages of .275/.367/.507. Also, he only managed hit 8 bombs and record 23 RBI. I’m trying to give him a pass on those numbers, because he only played in 52 games. After a rough year like that, it’s easiest for a player of Donaldson’s pedigree to take a one year big money deal. It would be similar to his last couple of arbitration year payouts when the Blue Jays ponied up the cash to keep one of the most offensively prolific third basemen in baseball happy. I assume he could still grab anywhere from $16 to $19 million for one year, solely based off of his track record. The problem even with that though is that Donaldson was also hurt for a lot of 2017. Over the last two years, he’s missed 159 games. That’s a whole season of production.

Case closed then, right? Donaldson is losing numbers quickly because of injury and a lack of production after his DL stints. Not exactly. Yes, Donaldson is hurt and that sucks. But I don’t think that’s why he didn’t at least put up a decent slash line while he was out there. The reason for his drop in production…pitching. Pitchers pitched to Donaldson differently last year. Donaldson saw a fastball 33.1% of the time last year while at the plate. That was the second lowest total of his career. The lowest total was in 2017 when he saw a fastball on only 32% of pitches. So, why did we not see a drop in Donaldson in 2017? The sinker. For most pitchers the sinker is another high velocity pitch. In 2017 Donaldson saw a sinker 19.9% of the time. In 2018 he saw a sinker 13.5% of the time. Essentially he saw a decrease in high velocity pitches by 5%. With only 47% of the pitches he saw being high velocity, he had a less predictable plate appearance. Pitchers kept there usage of the slider at a career high 21.2% from 2017. Then they used the cutter a career high 9.2% of the time against Donaldson. The same can be said for the changeup, which he saw 10.5% of the time. All of those pitches were used more against him than any other year in his career. Finally, Donaldson saw the curveball 9.9% of the time. That was second to 2016, when the curveball was featured on 10.3% of pitches.

Donaldson was pitched far more evenly than any year in his career last year. A couple other numbers can most likely be attributed to the pitches Donaldson saw last year.  Donaldson made way less contact last year. On pitches he swung at inside the zone, Donaldson made contact 77.5% of the time, which is far less frequently than his 83.7% career mark. When Donaldson swung outside the zone, he saw contact on 50.9%. That is a staggeringly low mark to his career 59.4%. He made contact on 69.5% of pitches he swung at last year. That’s almost 7% less than his career average of 76.3%! On top of less contact, there were fewer swings too. Donaldson swung at 41.9% of pitches he saw last year. That was slightly below his career average of 43.8%. So, less swings and less contact when swinging. I think he was fooled. Donaldson failed to make adjustments to the change in style pitchers used against him. Or did he? There are two statistics I’d point to for Donaldson’s 2018: OPS and Hard Hit %. Donaldson reached a career high mark in hard hit balls last year. On balls he connected with, Donaldson hit the ball hard 41% of the time. That’s almost 6% more than his career average of 35.3%. His OPS was 801. That’s pretty good for most. For Donaldson it sucks, but he hit 249 last year but still managed to have an 801 OPS. That means that amongst the struggles he still found a way to find gaps with his hard contact and walk.

Donaldson played in 52 games in 2018. Hardly enough time for him to adjust and then right the ship, as far as statistics go. Most veteran hitters see a change in how pitchers approach them every year. They might struggle at first,  but then have a chance to fix their slash lines once they adjust to the new approach. Donaldson didn’t play in enough games for his adjustments to show on the back of his baseball card. In the 16 games Donaldson played for the Indians, he had a slash of 280/400/520…that’s more like it. That’s righting the ship. That’s Donaldson making adjustments and having it show statistically. 

Donaldson is a competitive ballplayer who wants to be great and win. I guarantee he’ll make adjustments and find a way to approach the plate with more consistency next year. He’s not washed up. He just needs to look at the charts. Teams should be more concerned about keeping this star healthy and less about his ability to play. I think they will. I think the rest of baseball will look at those same numbers I did and he’ll find a handsome payday. Lock him up with an incentive filled deal to keep Donaldson motivated and the team protected from his injuries.

Stats via Baseball Reference, Fangraphs

Photo via Sportsnet

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