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Josh Donaldson is the Indians’ X-Factor

Imagine if the Indians acquired him just as he was getting back to form? Well, that would give them a pretty big boost.

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MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Even though it drew a bit of scrutiny among league employees, the Indians’ acquisition of Josh Donaldson was a rather savvy move. Donaldson, 32, was not too long ago in every single conversation about the best players in the league, and the model of consistency, posting a respective 154, 157, and 151 wRC+ from 2015 to 2017.

The problems didn’t start until early this season, when his dead arm syndrome then turned to a calf injury that kept him on the disabled list until he was, unsurprisingly, dealt during August waivers to the Indians.

Even though Cleveland was successful in getting cash back to subsidize the deal, and performed it while Donaldson could remain eligible for the postseason, it was still a fair question as to whether he would be healthy and successful by then. He hit just .234/.333/.423 in the first half, after all.

Yet there’s good reason to believe that it could be their ace in the hole, that it was savvy enough that he could become healthy and be the ~140 wRC+ hitter he was before. For a team that might be a hair weaker than their American League opponents, that could very well make the difference.

The first sign of a successful recovery is usually hard hit rate; it always carries the prediction caveat, but with a player like him, and the fact I doubt he had all of his abilities sapped, hitting the ball as hard as when you were healthy is a good sign that you are, in fact, healthy again. Hard hit rate, as one would have it, is rebounding:

It would also follow that he is normal if his plate discipline returns to a normal level, mostly because he doesn’t feel like he has to expand the zone if his mechanics allow him to sit and select his pitches. Again, as it would happen...

If we drill into exit velocity, we would get something pretty similar. By month, he had his best average exit velocity on fastballs, despite the small-ish pitch sample.

Of those 27 plate appearances against fastballs, though, nine of them ended in a barrel, with an xSLG of .776.

Even just by eye, here is what he looked like just as he started in Cleveland...

...and here is what he looked like hitting a grand slam against the Royals last week:

That looks like the usual swagger of Donaldson. Vegas may not necessarily consider Cleveland underdogs, as they sit at 8/1, but there are a couple of structural disadvantages. They will likely have to face tougher competition than NL teams, mostly, as they have to face the pitching of Houston and either Boston or New York, no slouches either. Adding a projected 140 wRC+ hitter gives them possibly a half-win extra in that short of a time, which could be the difference between competition and elimination.

Maybe other teams are ready for this, and they can recognize that they need to pitch as carefully as last season. But sometimes, there’s nothing to prepare for when you’re back to being a top 15-30 hitter in the league.