After a surprise first-place finish in the National League East last year, the Atlanta Braves entered this offseason searching for an offensive threat to bolster their lineup. After being shutout twice in their Division Series matchup against the Dodgers, they probably had good reason to be on the lookout for a new bat to add to their roster. They quickly struck a one-year deal with Josh Donaldson worth $23 million in the hopes that he would rekindle some of the magic that made him the second-most valuable player in baseball from 2013-2017.
Through the first two months of the season, it seemed like a worst-case scenario was playing out for the Braves’ biggest offseason acquisition. Through May 31, Donaldson had posted a 118 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR in 217 plate appearances. Above average, yes, but a far cry from his 148 wRC+ he averaged annually in the five years prior to 2018. With a lengthy injury history since at least 2016, you had to wonder if all that wear and tear had caught up with his 33-year-old body.
A shoulder injury sapped him of his power last year, so it was a little worrisome that his ISO was just .186 through the first two months of the season. That would have been his lowest power output since 2012, the year before he broke out with the Athletics. But more concerning was the 28.1% strikeout rate, higher than any other season in his career except for the brief cup of coffee he received way back in 2010. In his prime, he had always been able to combine reasonable strikeout rates with his massive power.
Since June 1, however, Donaldson has put together a vintage performance. He’s matched his previous offensive output exactly, posting a 148 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR across 198 plate appearances. He’s tied for the National League lead in home runs during this period with 16. That puts him on pace to launch more than 30 home runs for the fourth time in five years. So what happened to his power early this season and why has it come on so strong recently?
Way back in 2011, Donaldson was one of the first players to embrace the launch angle revolution. He’s been a vocal proponent for the “elevate and celebrate” crowd ever since. But early this season, he was pounding the ball into the ground far more often than he’d like.
Josh Donaldson’s Batted Balls
|Year||GB%||FB%||Launch Angle||Exit Velo||Hard%||wOBA|
|2019, Pre 6/1||44.3%||32.8%||12.4||92.8||52.5%||.356|
|2019, Post 6/1||40.5%||38.9%||15.5||93.1||42.9%||.398|
SOURCE: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant
This trouble elevating the ball started last year and was likely tied to his shoulder and leg injuries. But those bad habits carried over to the start of this year. His fly-ball rate during the first two months of the season would have been the lowest of his career. But sometime around the start of June, something clicked, and he started lifting the ball again. Since then, his batted ball stats look more like his MVP season in 2016 than his injury-riddled campaign last year.
Hitting more fly balls isn’t simply a matter of getting the ball off the ground for Donaldson. When he elevates, he has been crushing the ball. His average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is a career-high 98 mph. Among the 400 players who have hit at least 25 balls in the air this year, Donaldson’s exit velocity ranks sixth. Since June 1, his exit velocity on those batted ball types has only increased, from 97 mph to 99 mph.
But his recent power surge hasn’t exactly been a linear improvement.
As you can see in his rolling wOBA chart, there’s an initial explosion in early June followed by a brief slump and then another explosion. On June 11, he began a stretch where he collected hits in 11 of 12 games and launched seven home runs. His bat cooled off for a little bit before another stretch of 12 games beginning on July 3 in which he blasted another seven home runs.
The other aspect of his struggles earlier this year has also seen an improvement. Since June 1, Donaldson has posted a 20.2% strikeout rate. That falls well below the higher strikeout rates he had posted since 2017. He’s always had excellent plate discipline, but those skills had deteriorated a bit recently.
Josh Donaldson’s Plate discipline
|2019, Pre 6/1||27.3%||69.7%||39.9%||13.6%|
|2019, Post 6/1||25.5%||74.8%||38.0%||11.1%|
This season, opposing pitchers have been pitching Donaldson further off the plate than ever before. And for the first two months of the season, he was obliging them by chasing those pitches out of the strike zone. The result was a lower contact rate and a corresponding elevated swinging strike rate. But as he’s settled in, he’s been able to reverse that trend even though pitchers are approaching him the same. He’s chasing less often, making more contact, and isn’t striking out as much since June 1. His chase rate has actually dropped sharply in the last couple of weeks, a good sign for continued improvement.
Early in the season, it looked like he might have been pressing at the plate. Not only was he a key acquisition for the Braves, but he was also looking to reestablish his value before hitting the free agent market again this coming offseason. Fortunately, it looks like he’s rediscovered his MVP stroke at the right time. After losing twice to the Royals this week, the Braves’ lead in the NL East has fallen to just four games. Their torrid pace in June (20 wins and 6.7 runs scored per game) has dropped off in July (10 wins, 4.3 rs/g). They’ll need Donaldson to continue to lead their offense if they’re going to claim their second division title in a row.