TORONTO — Like most Toronto Blue Jays, Josh Donaldson is in a bit of a funk at the plate. After going 0-for-4 in Friday’s dispiriting 13-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox, Donaldson is now hitless in his last 22 plate appearances, and is 3-for-24 in September.
That’s not good. And Donaldson will be the first one to tell you it isn’t. But the 30-year-old is also the reigning AL MVP, fifth in baseball with 6.8 wins above replacement, and highly regarded as one of the most knowledgeable, astute hitters in the game. So, when he says things like what he’s about to say, you take him at his word.
“I feel like we’ve faced some pretty good pitching and we’ve hit some balls fairly hard in some crucial situations that didn’t work out,” Donaldson said before Friday’s series opener against Boston. “Sometimes you go through that. It’s just, at this time of year you always want every ball to fall because you know how important every run is.”
And he’s right. During the Blue Jays’ three-game set in New York earlier this week, Donaldson put balls in play at 95, 96 and 102.5 mph. Each one went for an out. Last weekend in Tampa Bay a pair of balls came off his bat at 90.5 and 97 mph. Those turned into outs, too. In the first inning Friday night, Donaldson turned around a Rick Porcello slider that came off his bat at 91-mph. Jackie Bradley Jr. barely had to move to corral the line drive in centre field.
In fact, since Aug. 29, which was the beginning of the three-city road trip the Blue Jays wrapped up this week, Donaldson has an average exit velocity of 93.3 mph on his balls in play, while the rest of baseball is averaging 89. He’s hitting the ball hard. He’s just having bad luck.
Think about the ball he hit in the fifth inning of the second game of the Yankees series. It was 2-1 at the time, and Donaldson worked a full count against Luis Cessa before getting an 85-mph slider down in the zone and absolutely scorching it down the third base line.
It should have gone for a double, it should have cashed both runners Toronto had on base, and it should have blown that game open. But New York third baseman Chase Headley made a remarkable diving play to rob Donaldson of the hit, and the Yankees eventually went on to win by a run. That, as ballplayers so often say, is baseball.
“Sometimes it works out. And sometimes you go out there and you play to the best of your ability and it doesn’t work out,” Donaldson said. “Sometimes you need to learn from certain things in order to grow as a player. And as a team.”
Donaldson is going to be fine. He’s one of the best hitters in the game and perhaps no one on the Blue Jays is as due for a breakout offensive performance. But the team aspect he’s talking about is interesting. The Blue Jays have scored three runs or less in five of their last nine games, all of them losses. They’ve hit only two home runs in their first seven games of September, and are batting .232/.323/.295 as a team in the month.
While last year’s club blitzkrieged through the final two months of the season, overwhelming opponents with a prolific offence, this year’s Blue Jays have been less consistent. Many have suggested the team is over-reliant on the home run, and there is some evidence to support that. The club is 23-4 when it hits three or more homers and 35-50 when it hits one or less. When they don’t hit a single homer, the Blue Jays are 9-27.
Of course, hitting home runs is the quickest and most efficient way to score and win ballgames, so those records should be somewhat expected. But even Donaldson thinks his team has to find ways to win when they aren’t able to leave the yard.
“We definitely are a team that likes to hit the long ball,” Donaldson said. “And at certain times, especially at this time of the season, you’re going to have to be able to manufacture runs in a couple of different manners other than just the long ball. And we’re going to need to do that in order to win games.
“The fact of the matter is, offensively, we’ve been a little bit more streaky this year than we were last year,” he added. “I think some of it has to do with our lineup being a little bit different. We don’t necessarily have a lot of guys who are speed-oriented, per se.”
That’s fair. Melvin Upton Jr. and Kevin Pillar are the only Blue Jays regulars who consistently beat out hits with their legs. Maybe Devon Travis, too. But past that, the Blue Jays generally try to drive the ball very far and very hard, which is an exciting approach to watch when it works, and a frustrating one when it doesn’t.
Donaldson doesn’t think the Blue Jays need an overhaul in terms of plate approach or hitting philosophy. That would be an unwise, panicky move at this point in the season. But he does think the club could help itself out with some more clever, and at times aggressive, baserunning.
“I definitely think there have been times on the basepaths this year where I felt like we could have taken an extra base and we haven’t,” Donaldson said. “I would definitely err on the side of being a little more aggressive. Ninety feet is huge in this game. If you can get a guy from first to second or first to third on a base hit, it’s huge. It makes the at-bat for the guy in the box a little bit easier, because sometimes it doesn’t always take a hit to score him.”
This is all to say that the skid Donaldson and the Blue Jays are on at the moment is much more likely to end sometime very soon rather than continue for the rest of the season. The most unlikely scenario is that the Blue Jays have suddenly morphed into a bad team at the worst possible time.
Yes, the defensive miscues, poor situational hitting, and lack of general success at the plate that the team has been experiencing lately has been bewildering for fans to watch, and even more bewildering for players to experience. But the Blue Jays are still a team with seven regulars carrying an OPS+ of 101 or higher, meaning they’re above league average. They’re still third in baseball with 198 home runs and a 9.8 per cent walk rate as a team. And still only the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers—the first place teams in each American League division—have scored more runs than the Blue Jays in the AL.
And Donaldson is still one of the best hitters in the game, and a legitimate candidate for a second consecutive MVP. If he’s confident the tide is about to turn, you should be too.
“I feel like, for the most part, we do a good job as a team and go out there and prepare. I do think there are times when we make mistakes, but that’s every team, you know?” Donaldson said. “That’s part of being human. And that’s part of the growth you go through at this time of the season. Some mistakes get a little bit more magnified than others but I believe our team does a great job of going out there and preparing and ultimately doing everything they can in order to win the game.”