Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Judge is back on the injured list with a bum toe, and enter former MVP Josh Donaldson from stage right.

You’d never know it, but the Bringer of Rain must have seen New York’s smoky skies and taken some extra swings in the cage. Donaldson has three home runs since returning from the injured list for the Yankees. All of them have traveled over 400 feet. Not only are these powerful homers, but they’ve come after Donaldson missed 53 games with a strained hamstring.

But here’s the best kept secret, and this can either help or really hurt the team. Until Judge is back in the lineup and in MVP form, Donaldson is the most important hitter in the Yankees‘ lineup. Yes, the 37-year-old third baseman with a $27 million price tag and who was a shell of himself last year is now the Yankees’ X-factor.

A strange statement at face value, sure. Yet, take a look at the rest of the lineup and you’ll see why the Yankees really need Donaldson. Anthony Rizzo, fresh off a shoulder tackle and subsequent sore neck from Fernando Tatis Jr., is 1 for his last 14. DJ LeMahieu, a two-time batting champ, is batting .229 since May 1 and only .239 for the year.

Giancarlo Stanton is can basically be Judge Lite when he’s healthy, but emphasis on the Lite. He’s streaky and also prone to lengthy slumps. He’s batting only .182 in his three games back. It’s a small sample size, but still illustrates the wide gap between himself and his teammate Judge.

Let’s ask the actual question now that we have all the details. As things stand, who steps up for the Yankees with Aaron Judge on the shelf? Gleyber Torres is already a streaky leadoff hitter and 1 for 16 this month. Anthony Volpe is a rookie and deserves patience, but he’s basically been a middle infield Joey Gallo all year.

That leaves Donaldson. The aging, polarizing former MVP whose first year in New York was defined by underperformance. Now, in a strange twist, the Yankees need him to exceed expectations.

Granted, looking back at his spring training, it’s very possible he’s got some of that former MVP fuel left in the tank. Donaldson went from struggling throughout spring games to suddenly rediscovering his once eye-popping power.

The answer? A simple change in swing mechanics. First, look at his famous walk-off grand slam against the Rays last season. Note how Donaldson is crouching and a little twitchy, and also late on Jalen Beeks’ fastball:

Now, compare that with the following videos of Donaldson from both spring training and fairly recently. The big change he made was standing more upright and staying still in the batter’s box. The crouch isn’t fully gone yet, but the stillness remains:

None of this is to say the Yankees should panic. Rizzo has been having a great year with the shift gone and Stanton will right himself. We also have to assume LeMahieu will break out of his funk at some point, and maybe Jose Trevino can find his stroke too. Harrison Bader should also be back from the injured list next week.

Until then, Donaldson should be considered New York’s reliable power bat. He even said after Tuesday’s 3-2 loss that he’s seeing the ball well. The Yankees would love for that to continue.

New York is a different team without Judge, having gone 6-7 without him already this year. But the Yankees also look a lot different with a locked-in Donaldson, especially when Judge returns and both players are hitting well. Add in the rest of the lineup getting back in a groove, and that’s a pretty solid squad.

But it all starts with Donaldson staying locked in and seeing the baseball as well as he has been. With Judge injured and other key players struggling, the Yankees really need his bat to stay hot.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.