The theme of this past offseason was rather simple: there are slightly expensive, only-available-for-cash wins on the depressed open market, and there are internal options that cost nothing; which do you prefer? Most teams pretty much chose the latter, and we’re going to talk about third base in particular today.
Manny Machado was an option for some (ie: basically one or two), while others chose to brave it with what they had. You could argue that multiple contending teams including the Rays, Mets, Angels, and Yankees could have used a short-term upgrade.
Yet Josh Donaldson went to the Braves, a team that not even to their credit has reduced payroll as their new stadium bump has seen a revenue boon, so this isn’t to toot the team’s horn per se. No, this is to say that this deal in particular, one that literally any team could have made, was not only justified but very possibly a steal.
After dealing with an injury-ravaged 2018 that included a dead arm, shoulder inflammation, and a calf strain that kept him mostly out of a big league lineup until September 11th, with a new team in the Indians in fact, it was common knowledge that while he could return to form, a multi-year deal was now likely off the table for the age-33 slugger, so he agreed to basically the same contract—$23 million over a single year—as his final year of arbitration.
There was already some argument that he would have been worth it from the start. When Donaldson returned with Cleveland, a few key indicators were pretty relevant as to whether he was “back” or not. His exit velocity, barrel percentage, and plate discipline had all improved to pre-injury norms, which was a really good sign! And what has happened since coming to Atlanta? More of the same.
The last time Donaldson’s exit velocity was in the 94th percentile like it is now? 2017. The last time his hard hit rate was near the same mark? 2015. This is also with a lower launch angle than during his peak, mind you.
His plate discipline looks even more refined, too. Sporting a 17.8% walk rate is no small feat, and that was largely accomplished through a career low in O-Swing% at 23.9% and a career high in Z-Swing% at 72.1%. It sounds simple for an older hitter—becoming more selective—but one could imagine how that’d be effective for a hitter who has rebounded before pitchers have learned so.
Which is where I’m heading, just so I hedge here before I get revealed as a fraud by Old Takes Exposed or whatever. While pitchers basically avoided the heart of the plate in his prime of, say, 2017...
...you can’t say the same about what pitchers have done so far this season:
So, there will be room for normal regression, always leaving open the possibility for injury. Aging and injury usually begets more of that, so while “he’s back” holds true ceteris paribus, the calculus changes when pitchers find out, and when Donaldson is truly tested of having to put together his first 120+ game season since 2016. His 139 wRC+ may become closer to 120 over time if things sour, but even if that does happen and he ends a three-win player, the Braves got exactly what they needed, and accomplished what many teams thought they could have done internally.