Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos stuck with the status quo for his team’s pitching in 2019. He made no major moves to improve the bullpen, which has been bad. He didn’t bolster the rotation, which has been surprisingly good.
But the angst about the relief pitching has overshadowed the one big Braves splurge. They paid $24 million for one season of third baseman Josh Donaldson. With one-third of it complete, I’d say their investment is looking pretty good with the potential for much bigger future returns.
Donaldson hasn’t hit like he did from 2013-16. Few players do. During that period Donaldson won an AL MVP award and finished eighth or better in the voting the other three years.
But Donaldson is a key piece of the Braves’ lineup, which is the best in the National League outside of the Los Angeles and Chicago. Already, that’s pretty good.
“I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface yet,” Donaldson said Tuesday, before the Braves opened a two-game series against the Nationals. “I feel like I’ve been grinding out a lot of the year so far, offensively.”
Even with that, Donaldson has been no worse than the third-best hitter for the Braves (while also playing good defense). Freddie Freeman remains top dog, and Ronald Acuna now is looking more like the rookie sensation we saw in 2018. Donaldson probably is next in line, depending on where Austin Riley lands once he comes down from the stratosphere.
Donaldson is hitting the ball hard. Entering Tuesday the average exit velocity of his batted balls ranked in the 97th percentile of MLB players. Donaldson has been disciplined at the plate, as always. His .381 on-base percentage entering Tuesday was tops among Braves regulars, and similar to his OBP during his best years.
Donaldson essentially is hitting at the same level as he did in 2018. Last year he played 52 games split between Toronto and produced 1.3 WAR, per FanGraphs. Through 50 games this year Donaldson has produced 1.2 WAR. Entering Tuesday FanGraphs projected Donaldson to finish with 2.9 WAR, which would be very good but well below their preseason projection of 4.5 WAR.
Maybe Donaldson doesn’t hit that latter mark. But I believe him when he said he’s got more in the tank. The biggest reason for optimism is that he’s been healthy after injuries derailed him in 2018.
That FanGraphs preseason projection assumed Donaldson would play in 133 games with 560 plate appearances. He played in 50 of the first 54 Braves games and had 207 PAs. That put him puts him on pace to play about 150 games with more than 650 PAs.
Donaldson took a new approach to his training last offseason, including altering his running form to put less stress on his calves after they’d given him issues.
“Health-wise, I feel good about how my body is responding,” Donaldson said. “I feel like it’s gone well. I feel good going forward.”
Luck will play a role in how Donaldson’s health holds up. There’s more certainty that another aspect of his game will end up fine. Donaldson hasn’t done much against left-handed pitchers and that almost certainly will change because he’s worn out lefties out over his career.
During his peak years of 2013-16, Donaldson hit 54 home runs against lefties. Only Nelson Cruz had more among major leaguers. Donaldson’s slugging percentage against lefties (.614) over those seasons was fourth-best and his on-base percentage (.397) ranked 16th. Even last season, when injuries slowed Donaldson, he hit .276 against lefties with a .382 on-base percentage and .517 slugging.
Donaldson had 49 plate appearances against left-handers entering Tuesday and hit .222 with no home runs and three doubles.
“I’m not seeing strikes from lefties,” Donaldson said. “If I’m not getting pitches to hit from lefties, my numbers won’t be there. We understand why they are not throwing me strikes. They are cautious.”
No surprise that Donaldson still is being patient against lefties. He had a .429 OBP against them entering Tuesday. One reason I really liked the Donaldson signing for the Braves is that, no matter what, he’s going to get on base at a good clip.
There’s value in that for the Braves. When Donaldson was hitting second in the order, putting Donaldson on base meant dealing with Freeman and Acuna behind him. Now that Donaldson is batting fourth behind Freeman he should expect more chances with runners on base, and he was 20-for-64 (.313) in that situation entering Tuesday.
“I feel l like I’m close to how I want to be moving at the plate,” Donaldson said. “Whenever I get synced back in, we’ll see where they gets us.”
In the end, I think it will get the Braves a really good hitter who’s a great bargain.
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