Rest of world to see what Donaldson is all about
Teammates, peers expect third baseman to get MVP consideration
OAKLAND -- The Josh Donaldson coming-out party isn't over just yet.
With postseason play returning to Oakland on Friday -- Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Tigers airs at 6:30 p.m. PT on TBS -- a national audience is finally about to understand what all the fuss is about the A's dynamic third baseman.
They're about to be acquainted with the best player they've never heard of.
While the West Coast remains lit each night, as Donaldson tumbles over tarps for another web gem, everyone else is getting through their REM cycle -- "He plays far away," says Miguel Cabrera. "When he plays, we sleep." -- and unaware that the likes of Cabrera and Mike Trout are gaining some company in the Most Valuable Player conversation.
That's likely Cabrera's honor again, while Trout gets his share of first-place votes, too. Donaldson won't win the thing. There's no debating this. But in question is not whether he should, rather if it's crazy to even include him in the chatter.
"He's just as valuable as other guys in the conversation," said A's reliever Jerry Blevins. "Without him, we're not in the position we are. He deserves some votes. There's no reason that he doesn't finish in the top five, just based on impact."
"There's only one guy that's going to win it, but when you're in the top 10, that's really good," said Red Sox veteran Jonny Gomes, a former teammate of Donaldson. "When you're in the top 10, your second year in, playing in Oakland, where that park has killed some people, and he's shining there, I think he should be in there. He's made that bus go. He's gold at third, he'll steal some bags, and he's hands down the best hitter on the team this year."
Gomes remembers the first time he set eyes on Donaldson last spring. The same questions infield coach Mike Gallego got from opposing staff members all this year -- Who is he? What's he all about? Where does he come from? -- are the ones Gomes asked his new A's teammates.
Gomes has seen plenty of stars in the making. He grew up with a lot of them: Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Evan Longoria, David Price, Joey Votto. But, as years have passed and his veteran status has grown, Gomes is now in the business of grooming these prospect types, rather than trying to beat them out for jobs.
He doesn't just hold anyone's hand. Gomes is picky.
"I don't care about the five tools, the power, the running, the hitting, all that stuff," he said. "I need to know what's inside. That's how I determine if someone's on the right track. I could sense two things with Josh: He wanted to win, and he wanted to be the best at his role, whatever his role was. With those two things, as a guy who enjoys grooming and the younger players, I was thrilled that I saw that right away."
"Even when I was younger," Donaldson said, "I've always tried to be that guy who was a winning baseball player."
Donaldson's A's did a lot of winning this year, finishing the regular season with 96 victories to clinch their second straight American League West title. But how many would they have without him?
WAR, the all-encompassing Wins Above Replacement statistic, helps answer this, even though by no means is it perfect. In attempting to evaluate a player's all-around contributions, WAR analyzes the number of additional wins a player gives his team, compared to a replacement-level player, essentially a Triple-A guy, at that position.
Donaldson stands tall in this regard, having finished with a 8.0 WAR under Baseball-Reference.com's system, and a 7.7 WAR using FanGraph.com's. The only other Oakland players with even a 3-WAR season, according to FanGraphs, are Coco Crisp (3.9) and Jed Lowrie (3.6).
And only Trout finishes with higher marks among AL players under both systems. Cabrera, whose defense doesn't carry any cachet, gets a 7.6 rating.
Defense matters. Donaldson, who was groomed as a catcher before switching to third base just last year when Scott Sizemore went down to injury, ended with +12 defensive runs saved, while Cabrera is -18 at the same position. That's a 30-run difference right there.
"He's played Gold Glove-caliber third base, which is even more impressive when you look at our foul territory," said Brett Anderson. "He probably doesn't get too much recognition for that because of some of the other guys that play third base. But this is a big reason why Josh deserves to be in that MVP conversation. It looks like he's been playing third base since high school. There's not too many shortcomings in his game."
Playing in just his first full big league season, nevermind that he's two months shy of his 28th birthday, the late-blooming Donaldson finished with a .301/.384/.499 slash line. He hit 24 homers and drove in a team-high 93 runs, numbers that, though not as gaudy as Trout's or Cabrera's, or Baltimore's Chris Davis, meant all the more to a team that watched Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes decline from last year.
"It's the everyday dependability that you get from Josh Donaldson," said Gallego. "I'm assuming that's one of the first names that Bob [Melvin] writes down in the lineup. At the same time, physically, mentally, if he's tired, sore, achy, once it's game time, this guy turns into another animal and says, in his own mind and sometimes to us out loud, 'Jump on my back. I'm gonna take this team to where it belongs.' To be able to back that up every single day, there's no doubt, every time he steps to the plate, we expect something big.
"The dependability we have upon him every single day to be the guy that you want up there in a clutch situation, whether he's going bad or good, that to me is an MVP candidate."
The A's All-Star snub is responsible for three of their eight walk-off wins this year. In high-leverage situations, as measured by Baseball-Reference, Donaldson hit .394. That's the third-best mark in the Majors and higher than Cabrera (.323) and Trout (.257).
"When the game's on the line, he's going to come through," said Trout. "He plays the game hard. You don't see even an inning that he takes off. He plays great defense, and he's a gamer. He's stepping up big for them. When they need a big hit from him, they're going to get it. I think he's definitely the MVP of that team, for sure."
"We probably wouldn't be in this same situation without JD," Anderson said, "and that's part of being an MVP."
Anderson wasn't as much of a stats junkie as he's come to be since brushing shoulders with former locker mate Brandon McCarthy, now with the D-backs. McCarthy is passionate about sabermetrics, having used them to transform his career. And he has his own take on Donaldson's season, and it's place in an inspiring MVP debate.
"There's no doubt he should be a top-three, top-four MVP candidate," said McCarthy. "Without looking closer at it, there's a clear No. 1 in my mind in that league, but then I don't think JD falls too far behind that. It's still a fantastic, elite season by any measure.
"Not to say you could say this happening, or it happening so soon, but you could see how good he was. There was tons and tons of raw ability there. There was arm strength for days, agility, defensive ability, there was a lot of power."
"That's why, for me, it's not even a surprise what he's done," added Melvin. "This is who he is. The durability, the defense, the all-around play, the clutch hitting, all that would suggest that we might be in a different spot had he not performed that way."
Donaldson, for the record, would've placed his MVP vote for Cabrera last year if he had one, simply based on the fact he won the Triple Crown. Without that, Donaldson said, he might've gone for Trout, taking WAR into consideration.
"I do follow WAR," he said, "and I think it has its place. I don't know exactly how they determine it all, but I definitely think WAR is very meaningful. Ultimately, I think that's what it comes down to this year, just trying to help our team win, and I think that's a statistic that tries to show how a person helps a team win."
"I think everyone knows he's not going to come close to getting MVP, and I don't mean that in a bad way, but I think he's going to get his votes as he should," said Reddick. "And he should be happy about that. "He's been the consistent hitter we've needed all year, and what makes JD even more special is the defense he's played at third base for us all year. And he might not even get recognized for that. But hopefully people are starting to pay attention to him."
They'll soon have no choice but to.