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Josh Donaldson's Disastrous Yankees Tenure: An Analytics Cautionary Tale

The Yankees' decision to trade for Josh Donaldson based on his exit velocity and age backfired as he became their third-worst hitter ever.

In March 2022, the Yankees made a trade for Josh Donaldson from the Twins. Despite his age of 36 and 37, the Yankees were willing to take on the $50 million contract for two years. This decision was based on Donaldson's impressive exit velocity in 2021, which was even higher than when he won the American League MVP award in 2015. However, what happened to Donaldson serves as a cautionary tale about relying too heavily on exit velocity and age.

Even though Donaldson struggled in the past two years, the Yankees kept using his exit velocity as a justification for his poor performance. They believed that there would be a significant improvement in his slash line as a Yankee. However, Donaldson ended up being released by the team and became one of the worst hitters in the franchise's history. Only two players had a lower batting average with the Yankees over at least 650 plate appearances.

Exit velocity only measures how hard a player hits the ball, but it doesn't provide the full picture of their performance. For example, Joey Gallo has a higher exit velocity than Luis Arraez this year, but that doesn't necessarily make him a better hitter. In the case of Donaldson, his famous bat speed was declining, and his complex swing was not as effective as he aged into his mid-30s.

Looking at Donaldson's performance against fastballs since 2015, there has been a significant decline in the last two years, especially against fastballs at 95 mph or higher. This season, Donaldson only managed to get one hit out of the 63 fastballs he faced at that velocity. This highlights the real issue behind his struggles, rather than just his exit velocity.

The Yankees may not have predicted such a decline for Donaldson, but their reliance on older players came at the wrong time. The new rules of the game favor athleticism, speed, and range, which older players often lack. The Yankees had the oldest average age of position players on their roster, and they not only had to deal with Donaldson's decline but also the declines of other veteran players like DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Hicks.

The Yankees found themselves playing an outdated game, as older players like Donaldson have become less useful in the wild card era. The statistics for players aged 36 and above in 2023 reflect this decline. Donaldson, who was once a formidable hitter, saw a sharp decline in his performance. He was released by the Yankees, giving him a chance to join another team for the postseason, while the Yankees still have to worry about the performances of Stanton, Rizzo, and LeMahieu.

In his prime, Donaldson was a highly skilled hitter who inspired others to seek alternative hitting techniques. He finished in the top eight in MVP voting for four consecutive years and won the award in 2015. However, his decline came swiftly, and now the Yankees must address their concerns with other struggling players.

Overall, the Yankees' experience with Josh Donaldson serves as a reminder that relying solely on exit velocity and older players can be a risky strategy. The game has evolved, and teams need to adapt to the new rules and prioritize athleticism and speed. The decline of Donaldson and other veteran players highlights the challenges teams face in staying competitive in the wild card era.

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