Josh Donaldson was the canary in the coal mine to the Yankees’ 2023 season.
When the Yankees traded for Donaldson from the Twins in March 2022, they happily assumed the $50 million over two years on his contract, even at 36 and 37 years old. After all, Donaldson’s exit velocity in 2021 (94.1 mph) was higher than in ’15, when he won the American League MVP award (92.5).
But what happened to Donaldson—the Yankees released him Tuesday as the franchise’s third-worst hitter ever—is a lesson in why teams better be careful with exit velocity and age.
Even as Donaldson struggled the past two years, the Yankees kept pointing to his exit velocity (90.7 last year and 92.8 this year), like somehow there was going to be some massive correction to his awful slash line as a Yankee (.207/.293/.385). Only Walter Blair (1907 to ‘11) and Bill Robinson (’67 to ‘69) ever hit for a lower batting average with the Yankees over at least 650 plate appearances.
Exit velocity tells you only how hard someone hits the ball when they hit it. Joey Gallo (93.3) has a far superior exit velocity this year than Luis Arraez (87.9, below MLB average of 89.1).
In the eyeball test, Donaldson was losing some of his famous bat speed. As a younger hitter, Donaldson helped change the game—accelerating the launch angle generation—with his fast-twitch, complex swing in which he pumped his hands and took a big leg kick. All that effort simply did not work as fast and efficiently as he aged into his mid-30s.
Look at how Donaldson has fared since 2015 against fastballs (not including cutters), particularly fastballs at 95 mph or higher. His production has fallen off the cliff in the last two years. This season, Donaldson has one hit against the 63 fastballs he saw at 95 mph or harder. That was the real story as to what was going on, not his exit velocity.
Worst Fastball Hitters, 2022-23 (min. 2,500 pitches)
Could the Yankees have seen such a decline coming? Maybe not to that extent, but their bet on older players came at precisely the wrong time. The new rules reward athleticism, speed and range. New York trusted a roster with the oldest average age of position players. Absorbing the decline of Donaldson is one thing, but when you also are absorbing the declines of DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks, it becomes a bigger problem.
The Yankees got caught playing an outmoded game. Older players like Donaldson have never been less useful in the wild card era as they have been the past two seasons.
Age 36+ Players, 2023
CategoryRank in Full Seasons Since 1995
In his prime, Donaldson was a ferocious hitter whose style and hitting smarts were the envy of many of his peers. From 2013 to ’16, he finished in the top eight in MVP voting four straight years, winning it in ’15. He inspired other hitters to seek private hitting gurus outside of the employ of the team to find ways to get the ball airborne. From ’15 to ’19, balls hit in the air (fly balls and line drives) increased from 54.7% to 57.1%.
The decline came swiftly. By getting released now, Donaldson has a day or two to join another team to be postseason eligible. And the Yankees still have Stanton, Rizzo and LeMahieu to worry about. The average MLB hitter hits .241 against fastballs 95 mph and faster. Stanton (.203), Rizzo (.194) and LeMahieu (.163) all are well below average when it comes to hitting plus velocity.