This week: 10 for 25, 5 doubles, 1 BB, 4 R, 2 HR, 5 RBI, .400/.423/.840
It’s been a while. Let’s get back to it.
Josh Donaldson plays dirty. Last Thursday he showed his true colors. Let this article be a celebration of his performance, kept separate from his black soul.
At this point, Josh Donaldson should not surprise anybody. The A’s are in first place the second year in a row, Donaldson being the best position player on this year’s club. Last year, in only 294 plate appearances, Donaldson was an above-average starter. His 1.5 WAR worked out to about 3 over the standard 600 PAs, but his value came primarily from the two most difficult phases of the game to quantify: defense and baserunning. Given the uncertainty behind the most prevalent defensive metrics, Donaldson’s value heading into this season was questionable.
Well, Donaldson is still a plus defender. His range on pop-ups is tailor made for the Coliseum’s spacious foul territory. Major League Baseball called him Tarp Man. I don’t see the name sticking, but you get the point. And even though those balls would fall well into the seats in any other ballpark, Donaldson’s range shouldn’t be discredited. After all, neither I nor the A’s are in the business of projecting his value for another team. The A’s want Donaldson right where he is, because he’s cheap, young, and just a grade below elite.
This table ranks all third basemen with a minimum of 850 PA by WAR over the last two calendar years. Donaldson is sixth, in a closely packed group with Kyle Seager and Martin Prado. Both of them solid starters and underrated, victims of East Coast bias. And when you account for the disparity in plate appearances, Donaldson comes out closer to Evan Longoria and Chase Headley than Seager and Prado.
Sort the table by the fielding metric, Donaldson is sixth, above the great Adrian Beltre. Sort it by wRC+, Donaldson is tied for eighth with Chase Headley, though really that’s tied for sixth, because two of the players above him, Matt Carpenter and Hanley Ramirez, should rightly be categorized at other positions.
The raw counting stats may not be impressive, but remember that this is Donaldson’s first full season. Limiting ourselves to 2013, Donaldson ranks second in WAR (6.4), fourth in wRC+ (142), fifth in OBP (.372), sixth in home runs (21), third in doubles (34), and fifth in hits (154) among all qualified third basemen. He has the most plate appearances and games played on the A’s, and is almost twice as valuable as the second most valuable position player on the roster, Jed Lowrie (3.3 WAR in one less PA). The A’s have succeeded on offense despite last year’s stars, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, both having down years. Josh Donaldson at third and aggressive platooning at every other position keeps them competitive.
A brief history: Donaldson was drafted in the first round (47th overall) of the 2007 draft by the Cubs. Traded in 2008 to the A’s as part of a package for Rich Harden, Donaldson did not get much love in the prospect lists, even though he was a catcher until at least 2011. That year the Hardball Times and SB Nation ranked him 8 and 13 respectively among A’s prospects, below current Angels utility infielder Grant Green. (I like Grant Green.) This article by Brian McClintock gives a thorough and well-sourced history of Donaldson’s professional career. Since I labeled this paragraph “brief,” I’ll just leave it at that.