Roster Review: Josh Donaldson

By Jason Wojciechowski on January 4, 2014 at 10:58 AM

Playing as I start this post: Pete Seeger, "Talking Atom (Old Man Atom)" (link to lyrics only, sorry).

So how about this guy, huh? He's a former first-round pick (48th overall) out of Auburn who moved as quickly as you'd expect an Auburn pick to move, reaching Double-A in his second full season after being traded to Oakland the previous year. But then he got a little stuck in Triple-A, spending all of 2010 and 2011 there and struggling in the majors to start 2012—young as he still was at that point, the first notes of a Quad-A smell were starting to reach us. Adding to that feeling was the A's experiments with Donaldson at different positions as far back as 2008, though he wasn't being forced out from behind the plate by other Stockton prospects—Raul Padron? Jed Morris? In 2011, he played innings at six different positions, though he was still about 75 percent a catcher and 25 percent a third baseman.

And then Brandon Inge got hurt and the rest is history: .290/.356/.489 from August 14th to the end of 2012, and .301/.384/.499 for 2013, with strong defense at third (how strong depends, of course, on your metric, but he's no ex-catcher lumbering around out there—he lost a noticeable amount of weight upon shifting positions and is extremely athletic, but has kept his strong arm from his years wearing the tools), adding up to 8.0 bWAR, 7.7 fWAR and 6.2 WARP. By any measure, Donaldson had a top-notch season, and by some measures, he had a mid-ballot MVP season (thus his fourth place MVP finish, though his one first-place vote, from John Hickey (Oakland Tribune), is as homerific as they come—Hickey somehow had Mike Trout fourth, though I guess that's still better than Mel Antonen (fifth) and Bill Ballou (seventh??!??!!!#)).

Donaldson was right around the median in strikeout rate among batting-title qualifiers (64th of 140) and three percentage points below the mean. He also walked at a rate well above the league mean, finishing 25th overall in walk percentage despite an overall swing rate right around the league's mark. But check the in-zone and out-of-zone swing rates (per FanGraphs, which I think is important to note because I'm not sure whether everybody uses the same definition of "zone"):

  O-Swing Z-Swing
Avg 29.7 62.7
JD 24.9 64.7

One of the things we're starting to realize with the spread of PITCHf/x analysis is that the difference between top players and all the rest might be even smaller than we've previously realized when we look at where pitches go, when they're used, how often they're offered at etc. etc. etc. Donaldson basically makes a better decision than the league on seven pitches out of every 100 (five fewer swings out of the zone; two more swings in the zone), or about one better decision every 14 pitches. That's a little more often than once per game.

Obviously those strike-zone decisions aren't the only thing that make Donaldson better than average. Take a look at his slugging percentage on contact, for instance, and look what he does to pitches down and in:

Donaldson slugging

It should also be noted that even if we look for players right around the O-Swing and Z-Swing league averages, we get for instance:

Player O-Swing Z-Swing TAv
Prince Fielder 29.8 63.5 .297
Hunter Pence 29.6 64.9 .294
Jacoby Ellsbury 29.1 62.1 .277

Which is maybe just to say that everyone creates their offensive value (not to mention their overall value) in different ways. The second-swingingest player in baseball this year (by O-Swing) was Adam Jones (.294 TAv, 3.0 WARP sunk by a massive negative FRAA that you may or may not believe).

It will be interesting to see whether pitchers start to work upstairs on Donaldson more in 2014. First, pitchers rarely went up there against him in 2013

Donaldson pitch freq

But he was willing to chase up there to some degree

Donaldson swing rate

And neither made contact

Donaldson whiffs

Nor did damage when he did make contact (same image as above)

Donaldson slugging

Is this a weakness? It's hard to get too worried about it given that the league in general can't hit the high pitch

League slugging

Despite swinging a fair amount

League swings

So the answer is probably "if pitchers could pitch up there and get batters out reliably, we'd see a lot more of it." Instead, pitchers keep the ball down, which Donaldson's swing appears to be extremely well-adapted to handle.

Unless Yoenis Cespedes re-emerges (which is entirely possible—he's only 28 himself, and ... well, more about him in his post, I guess), it seems safe to bet that Josh Donaldson will be the team's best player again in 2014, at least on a total-value basis, i.e. it's possible that Coco Crisp is basically equally as valuable, but the inevitable missed time, compared to Donaldson's 668 plate appearances last year, gives the third baseman the edge.

Song playing as I finish: Russian Circles, "Mladek."