Josh Donaldson is a Cleveland Indian.
A month and change later, it’s still a little weird. It’s a rare rental type of move that the Indians wouldn’t be caught dead doing in the past because of how costly it would be. And yet, at the same time, the risk/reward levels of it are pure Cleveland. He’s startng at third base, and hitting in the heart of the lineup. It’s plain what the hope is -- that he returns to the form he showed prior to 2018. Is this realistic? It’s a small sample we have to work with, but it’s pretty encouraging.
In the three years prior to 2018, Donaldson was, as we all know, a beast. He posted a .399 wOBA (154 wRC+), averaged 37 home runs and won an MVP in 2015. On a team with peak Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, he was probably the best hitter and certainly the best player. That player is (probably) gone for good; that’s just how age works. Donaldson was hitting his apex physically and maximized everything, and is now a 32-year old man. It’s why the injuries aren’t a huge surprise.
The real hope, not the kind that shoots for stars and sugarplums, is that he’s healthy and effective. The returns as an Indian scream this to be so. If you wanted to, just look at the basic numbers.
Well, basic as I consider them.
In his 60 plate apearances as an Indian he’s posting nearly identical rate stats — a .396 wOBA and 149 wRC+. Yes, it’s only 60 plate appearances, barely enough for even walk rate to stabilize. It’s so similar though, too close for me to not see truth somewhere in there
But it’s such a small number of games, so we can’t trust those numbers. Just trim the final Royals series off and his wRC+ drops 12 points. So there has to be something else. Luckily, there is.
Since joining the Indians, his Hard Hit Rate according to FanGraphs is 50 percent. Matt Carpenter led baseball at 49 percent this year, and he had a pretty good season. That’s what has struck me about Donaldson, though — he’s just hitting the ball incredibly hard, seemingly every time up. Since coming to the Indians he’s led the Tribe in Exit Velocity at 91.5 mph on 40 batted balls, surpassing even the mighty Yandy Diaz. Donaldson just hits the ball, you know, in the air.
If we look at worst case, even then, I’m not too worried. This year Donaldson’s 117 wRC+ for the whole season would rate him fourth on the Indians, a smidge above Edwin Encarnacion. If that’s all he is for the Indians (and I don’t think he will be, not with what he’s shown this past month) he’s still going to be a fine part of the team against the Astros.
But the health, the health! The legs especially are what we care about. That calf, the body part that has bedeviled the Indians with Lonnie Chisenhall the last couple years, cut out months of Donaldson’s season. But he looks quite spry, or did against the Red Sox:
So that’s encouraging. He shouldn’t always do that — honestly many would wish he didn’t all October — but those are healthy legs. As for the defense…
This was just one game, on the 19th against the White Sox, but that’s some of the agility we saw out of him when he won an MVP. He gets to play next to Francisco Lindor, who now gets to play next to Jose Ramirez on the other side, so he’s got safeties that let him not have to roam quite so far. But he can. Some.
It’s only 60 plate appearances, some 16 games, but the eye test and some peripherals just bellow health for Josh Donaldson. It would make total sense to be a bit worried — but right now, as he is, Donaldson is everything that was hoped for and advertised. How that looks against the best pitching staff not in Cleveland, rather than the dregs of the AL Central, that’s the real question.