Josh Donaldson bookended the Braves’ thrilling 10-inning win Saturday in San Diego. He opened the game with a two-run homer, his first of two on the night. He ended with a lead-off walk in the extra frame, scoring the go-ahead run and first of three runs in the 10th.
Donaldson, a former American League MVP, looks worth his weight in gold after all. General manager Alex Anthopoulos prioritized offense in the winter. Donaldson was target No. 1, presenting the chance to theoretically upgrade the middle of the order while adding pedigree the team otherwise lacked.
It was a slow start. Anthopoulos endured early criticism as Donaldson stumbled out of the gate. His defense was superb, but the Braves gave him $23 million for the splashy offense. They trusted that he’d figure it out.
Donaldson has since reminded the National League why he was an MVP. He was already a presence, now he’s a true threat. He leads the majors in homers since June 12. Over that time, he’s been the Braves’ most deadly hitter.
He’s hitting lefties. He’s hitting righties. He’s destroying fastballs. He’s no longer as susceptible to off-speed terrors. He’s feeling his best physically. This is the Donaldson the Braves wanted.
“I feel like over the course of the last few years, I hadn’t seen lefties very often,” he said. “And this year, my on-base percentage has been good against lefties. But balls I’d been putting in play were either at somebody or whatnot. The more and more I see lefties, it’ll change.”
Deeper stats support Donaldson resembling his form of years ago. His barrel percentage (15) is the highest of his career, while his hard-hit percentage (49.1) is on par with 2016, the best of his career.
What it means: The underlying stats referenced during Donaldson’s early struggles are finally creating results. Donaldson hasn’t just materialized into the power bat the Braves hoped; he’s one of the most dangerous hitters in the league.
The Braves are watching their best-case scenario unfold, if only for this stretch. Donaldson’s resume is in full effect. He’d be the first to tell you to check the back of his baseball card. When he goes on a tear, he’s among the most feared hitters in the game.
“We’ve seen him earlier, when he gets hot, he’s the kind of guy who can carry you,” manager Brian Snitker said.
The Braves consistently invoked that belief throughout the winter and spring. Their offense is deep enough that it’s unlikely Donaldson will be tasked with the bulk of work, but he’s proving more than capable.
His defense is unanimously lauded in the clubhouse. Snitker admits he didn’t know what to expect from Donaldson on that end, but what the 33-year-old has done — his ability to charge balls and make difficult plays look easy is extraordinary by most accounts — has made him that much more valuable an addition.
“He’s right there (among the best I’ve had),” Snitker said. “Chipper (Jones) was great. Josh has been — I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have any expectations. I hadn’t been around him. I haven’t been surprised, but it’s been really nice to see how good he is, how athletic he is, how strong that defensive game he has is. He’s a really, really good defensive third baseman.”
Everyone knew the eye-popping resume. Donaldson was still a risk, plagued by injuries in the past two seasons and appearing beyond his prime. Any semblance of his late production moving forward, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos was well-justified to invest $23 million for Donaldson.
“You never really know about a player until you play with him,” said Dallas Keuchel, who opposed Donaldson in the AL. “Facing him was always a challenge, even with Oakland before he went to Toronto. I mean, he won an MVP, so you can’t really talk enough about the guy. Just getting to know him now in the clubhouse, he brings a different type of personality, atmosphere. He’s locked in every day.”
The acquisition won’t be judged in its totality until October, when the Braves hope Donaldson is a piece to get them over the divisional series hump. How he performs there, however long or short the team’s run is, will overshadow his regular season.
But the Braves have to make it there first. If Donaldson continues his current pace, it’s increasingly easier to envision the Braves returning to baseball’s grand stage — armed with more firepower than a season ago.
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