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It’s late afternoon and Josh Donaldson isn’t thrilled that a handful of reporters are hovering near his locker, having waited for him to emerge from the shower even as the locker room emptied of players heading for batting practice. The clock strikes 4:30 — the go-away hour for media to clear the premises.
Josh Donaldson isn’t talking. Josh Donaldson isn’t hitting. And on this September Monday night, Josh Donaldson isn’t playing.
No Josh, for only the fifth game this year, and this time without any identifiable injury responsible for his absence. Maybe more of an all-over mess, the sum of its nagging and niggling parts. “I was thinking he needs the night off,” said the manager. “He’s pretty banged up. He’s in a little rut. So give him a night to regroup, feel better tomorrow.”
Before the game, with those ever-annoying Rays in town for yet another crucial series — as they all will be now — Gibbons was undecided about potentially calling Donaldson off the bench to pinch-hit, if required. “It’s a possibility.”
That would have defeated the point of giving Donaldson a night’s leisure — if not necessarily to rest his sore body parts, then certainly to ease the strain on that bit between his ears. Because slumps often take residence just above the brain stem.
There is no denying Donaldson, the reigning American League MVP and arguably the most crucial element in Toronto’s 2016 baseball aspirations, is in a horrendous slump. The numbers grow more accusatory by the day: zero hits in his last 27 at-bats, 3-for-31 in September, the first time in his career he has gone seven consecutive starts without a hit.
The guy didn’t suddenly forget how. It’s not something you lose irretrievably, like virginity. And he hasn’t looked lost at the plate either, chasing bad pitches outside. Last month his walks per plate appearance was one in every 6.77. For September it’s one in every 4.44. So he’s seeing the ball well, assessing pitches, staying patient, getting on base. Yet Donaldson’s strikeout rate is 22.5 per cent this month, compared to 16.6 per cent for the season. While his exit velocity — speed of balls leaving his bat — is 93.7m.p.h., indicating solid contact, far above league average, his batting average on balls in play — .296 last season — is .136 in September. Meaning that an extraordinary number of balls hit are being snagged and speared, liners and screamers with extra bases written all over them stroked directly at fielders or denied with spectacular defensive plays. That’s the head-banging part of this droop. Rotten luck.
“I guarantee that a lot of those outs that he’s gotten recently have been pretty loud outs,” says Jose Bautista, who’s had his own batting average struggles at the plate in this injury-plagued year. “I remember specifically in the New York series he hit seven or eight balls hard right at people.”
With Donaldson not in the mood to talk last night — a rarity for a stand-up guy — we turned to Bautista to address the anatomy of a slump.
“It’s largely predicated on how you’re being pitched,” said the two-time home run champion. And there’s no doubt Donaldson is being pounded inside, too often high around the chin — and nobody on the Toronto pitching staff seems inclined to do anything about that in retaliation. Game forensics also show he’s being thrown fewer fastballs, more breaking stuff, compared to last season, albeit not enough to make much of a statistical difference.
“How you’re being pitched combined with different factors in different at-bats,” Bautista continued. “Having people on base or not, at times having an approach that doesn’t match up to how they’re pitching you, having pitchers execute, having balls go right at someone.’’
“It’s a long season. You’re going to have your ups and downs. You’re just going to have to deal with it. Hopefully stay away from (slumps) as much as you can. Once you’re in it, you don’t have to change anything most of the time. But there are specific instances where you can identify something that you’re doing wrong. Then you work at it and try to get out of it.
“The worst thing you can do is get over-analytical and then get mechanical and lose your rhythm and your athleticism and your ability to go out there and compete.”
There’s nothing tangibly wrong with Donaldson’s hitting approach or his mechanics. He’s one of the most astute hitters in baseball, views it as both science – physics – and sport; body closed, hands down, swing in rhythm. It’s highly doubtful the third baseman has lost any self-confidence, though the 0-for furrow rankles.
“I think a lot of attention is placed on batting average and hits and not necessarily overall contribution to the result of a baseball game, nowadays,” Bautista said. “That might lead some people to blow some things out of proportion. But ultimately, for guys like myself, Edwin, Donaldson, yes, we want to feel like we’re pulling our weight every single day and we’re helping our team win.
“There are many ways to do that, not only by getting hits. You play defence every day. You bring a presence to the plate for different at-bats that can affect guys in front and behind you, move runners over, run the bases well, get on base. And Josh has been getting on base, even though he hasn’t gotten hits. So what he’s going through is not that big of a deal.”
Bautista assures this too shall pass.
“I’m not worried about Josh whatsoever, not even one bit. He’s by far one of the best players in the league and he’s going to continue to show it.”
Any time now would be nice.