Donaldson reflects on 2nd year with Twins 

October 3rd, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- has finished the year with playoff teams in all but one season since 2012 -- all the way back when he was a 26-year-old youngster on the Oakland A's.

He's not used to losing, and as part of his second season of a four-year, $92 million deal with the Twins, Donaldson has had to adapt to the unfamiliar role of being a veteran presence on a young, inexperienced team without aspirations for October.

"It is tough to go through losing," Donaldson said. "I do not enjoy losing in and of itself. So, I mean, it's been strenuous trying to figure it out and trying to put the pieces together and trying to find areas to where I can help not only just myself but help my teammates, help our staff just to kind of all get on the same page, game plan and figure it out together."

That hasn't gotten in the way of Donaldson's performance -- and though the stat line might not pop off the page like the numbers did in, say, 2015, when Donaldson won his American League Most Valuable Player Award, that's not what the Twins see when they assess the year he's had.

"There’s a lot of ways to look at JD’s season," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said a month ago. "Things that matter to us, a lot, that would point to him having one of the best years of his career. His surface line is still good. It doesn’t match the statement that it’s one of the best years of his career, but he’s absolutely had excellent at-bats."

There's no better place to start than in Donaldson's availability. Considering his much-scrutinized injury history and all the offseason chatter regarding the Twins' plan to keep his legs healthy following an injury-plagued 2020, it's worth noting that all that paid off to the tune of 135 games played and more than 540 plate appearances this season -- both second on the team behind only Jorge Polanco.

That's even more significant considering Donaldson's season started with him injuring his hamstring on his first batted ball of the year -- an issue that ultimately only cost him nine games.

"At the end of the day, I feel like 130-something games, whatever I played, are a pretty good mark for obviously going on the IL early on," Donaldson said.

And from the Twins' statistical corner behind their Zoom room backdrop at Target Field, the numbers to back Baldelli's statement trickled in. What kinds of things do they consider when they make such a statement?

For one, he's swinging more often (45.2 percent) than in any season since his 2015 MVP campaign and whiffing less (27.3 percent) than at any point since 2016. When he's making that contact, he's hitting the ball harder than he ever has in the Statcast era, with his 94.1 mph average exit velocity this season ranking the highest of all seven years in the Statcast era -- including that '15 MVP campaign.

The Twins also point out that his xwOBA -- a measure of his expected offensive production per plate appearance based on his quality of contact -- ranks in the top seven percent of the league, and that he's hitting right-handed pitching harder than ever, too, with his 93.9 mph average exit velocity against them measuring 1.1 mph harder than ever before.

To put that laundry list of numbers more simply, Donaldson's page on Baseball Savant has a lot of red -- with red being good. Based on plate discipline and quality of contact, almost all of his numbers are in the top 10 percent of all MLB hitters.

"The bar was very high, but now it's gone even higher," Baldelli said. "You add all that together, and it's a hell of a season."

With all that said, Donaldson's actual stat line -- .249/.353/.478 for a .830 OPS with 26 homers -- isn't as gaudy as the expected numbers, and for the analytically minded slugger, that's something that has bothered him throughout the year and a discrepancy he'll continue to look into.

"I look at a lot of my analytics and I've been left a little bit confused in some areas because I feel like I've hit the ball hard and I feel like I've hit the ball hard often," Donaldson said. "It's definitely been a confusing year as far as that's concerned. At the end of the day, I tried to hit the ball as hard as I can. For the most part, sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't."

With Donaldson's production having aged relatively gracefully here, in his age-35 season, he still has at least two seasons under contract in Minnesota -- though chatter surrounding a possible trade arose around the Trade Deadline and could again factor into the offseason, especially with the breakout of Twins Minor League Player of the Year Jose Miranda.

It's clear there was still plenty of value in Donaldson's bat and plate approach this season -- even in a losing year. And though Donaldson, too, knows that the Twins need a vast pitching improvement to return to contention next season, he affirmed his commitment to the organization following a tough year.

"I signed up for this," Donaldson said. "This is what I signed up for. I signed up to be a Minnesota Twin. At the end of the day, I want to win here. But those decisions aren't always left up to the player. So we'll see what happens."