JABO: The Rarity of Josh Donaldson’s Late Ascension

In some seasons, the Most Valuable Player award is a close race between a few worthy position players with a pitcher thrown into the mix if the circumstances align. This year, in the National League, the voting was unanimous for the MVP, and for good reason. In the American League, there were only really two serious candidates for the award, with one fact underlining that point: in MVP voting, each voter ranks players from one to ten, and this year in the AL, every ballot except for one had either Mike Trout or Josh Donaldson in first or second place.

Given that there were only two serious candidates in the AL, there was a fair amount of discussion about who was the worthier of the two players. We could say this was a battle of statistics versus context: a better statistical season (Trout) versus the offensive lifeblood of a playoff-bound Toronto team (Donaldson). Defensively, Donaldson had a better season, but Trout was clearly superior on the offensive side of the ball. Take a look at their full stats side-by-side (wRC+ uses 100 as league average, while UZR is how many runs better the player was than a league average defender):

2015 AL MVP Race
wRC+ (Offense) UZR/150 (Defense) WAR
Mike Trout 172 0.3 9.0
Josh Donaldson 154 9.8 8.7
SOURCE: FanGraphs

In the end, the context that is often added to the MVP award won out: Donaldson led his Toronto team to the playoffs after the city had endured a 21-year postseason drought, compiling an incredible offensive and defensive campaign in the process. As is so often the case, there was no true right or wrong answer on who should have won the award; it was close enough to where both players could have deserved it, and it was a matter of opinion that separated them. When all is said and done, baseball is about winning games, however, and Donaldson benefitted from being a key piece of a team that won more games than Trout’s Anaheim Angels.

Discussing the worthiness of each player winning the AL MVP has already been covered at length. If you’ve paid attention to this award season, you probably know the arguments for and against both Trout and Donaldson: we’ve even recapped a few of them here. What is well-known is who Donaldson currently is. What is less-known is who he Donaldson was, and where he now stands among historical MVPs. In context, who he was is a huge part of the story, and we’ll see that it’s pretty rare that he turned into who he is.

Donaldson was drafted out of Auburn University in the first round of the 2007 draft by the Chicago Cubs. He was drafted to play catcher, and that’s where he wound up in the minors during 2007 and 2008. He struggled at the plate in 2008, leading to him being traded to the Oakland A’s for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin.

It wasn’t until 2010 — when he was 24 years old — that he got a cup of coffee in the major leagues. After struggling through 14 games, he was sent back to the minors, and he wouldn’t get full playing time until the stretch run of Oakland’s AL West-clinching 2012 season. By then he was 26, far past the point at which a player is considered a big “prospect”, even if they were drafted in the first round. Donaldson wasn’t a bust, but his window to the majors was closing. Sent down for two months in the midst of the 2012 season, he came back to the majors in August as the Donaldson we know now. Something clicked during those two months in Triple-A Sacramento, and he never looked back.

For those of us who don’t play baseball professionally, 26 isn’t old. For those that do, it’s around the point at which players are normally expected to have either figured it out or not. And, for players who eventually win an MVP, 26 usually comes in the midst of an already above-average career. Donaldson is not only a late-bloomer in baseball terms; he is a rarity in terms of players who win MVPs. Take a look at a plot of how many Wins Above Replacement every player who has won an MVP since 1922 produced up until their 27th birthday:


Read the rest on Just a Bit Outside.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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6 years ago

Doesn’t really matter for the point of the article, but Donaldson was drafted as a junior out of Auburn in 2007 in the supplemental round. He slugged 0.591 that year after tearing up the Cape Cod league the summer prior… Also of note, he was a converted catcher and his primary position prior to his sophomore year at Auburn was 3B.

Eric R
6 years ago
Reply to  ReuschelCakes

“Doesn’t really matter for the point of the article, but Donaldson was drafted as a junior out of Auburn in 2007”

That he was listed as being drafted out of HS and then made his MLB debut three years later at age 24 soudned a bit off 🙂

6 years ago
Reply to  ReuschelCakes

Thanks for clearing that up. I was starting to think that he must have struggled greatly academically since he was still in HS at the age of 21.