If you come to this site, or are something more than just a casual baseball fan, you likely know that Josh Donaldson is pretty great at this whole baseball thing. With four straight top-10 American League Most Valuable Player Award finishes, and one actual MVP Award in his trophy case, this should seem pretty straightforward. And yet, relative to how good he is, I feel he’s still a little underappreciated. So in that spirit, I wanted to dig in a little on just how good he is. The answer is that he’s been historically great.
Let’s start, as we often do, with a table.
Donaldson didn’t become a regular in the majors until his age-27 season. That was back in 2013, four seasons ago. Since then, he has been one of the best players of all-time for his age. Look at him right there, nestled between Greg Maddux and Mickey Mantle. What?
Before we get to the players who appear on this table, though, let me give you a quick sampling of the players who aren’t on it: Jeff Bagwell, Miguel Cabrera, Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove, Eddie Mathews, Mike Piazza, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Tom Seaver, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker, and Cy Young, just to name a few. When was the last time you thought of Donaldson as superior to A-Rod? Obviously, I’m not saying that Donaldson’s career is better. In the time he’s been a regular, however, he been nearly as good as possible.
Getting back to the table, though: you can see that I’ve given pitchers credit (or debits) for their performance as hitters. For some, like Guy Hecker (great name) this really bumps them up the leaderboard. For others, like Sandy Koufax, it drops them down more than a half-dozen spots. For some, like Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux, it doesn’t move the needle at all. On the whole, the list would look mostly the same if you took out the pitcher’s position player WAR. If you don’t like this method, you’d knock off Hecker, Charley Radbourn, Ed Walsh and Fergie Jenkins and replace them with Mel Ott, Mathews, Rodriguez and Snider. I like my way better (obviously), but if you want the alternative, there it is.
If you parse the list by position, which you can do here, you’ll see that the only other third basemen on the list besides Donaldson are Wade Boggs and Mike Schmidt. That makes him a pretty rare bird. Here’s another way he’s a pretty exclusive member of this list:
What this table suggests is that, in recent memory, Donaldson is one of just a handful of players to reach that 30 WAR bar in his age-27 to -30 seasons (and including Boggs might be straining the definition of “recent memory”).
Whether it makes him more valuable or not, a remarkable feature of Donaldson’s run is his consistency. For examples, over the past four seasons, here are his games-played totals: 158, 158, 158 and 155. And his strikeout rates during that same time frame: 16.5%, 18.7%, 18.7% and 17.0%. And his wRC+ figures: 147, 130, 154 and 155. And his WAR marks: 7.6, 6.6, 8.7 and 7.6. It’s hard to be more consistent than this.
The scary thing is that he got better as a hitter last season. He lowered his swing rate to a career-low 41.9% but maintained his contact rate: his 76.7% contact rate in 2016 was basically the same as his 76.6% and 76.0% marksthe prior two seasons. As a result, his walk rate shot up to a career-best 15.6%. Before 2016, he had maintained a walk rate in the 10.3-11.4% range, so this was a sizable jump. The jump helped him post his first .400 OBP season. And he did that while maintaining the career-best ISO he set in 2015. In 2013 and 2014, he posted .199 and .201 ISOs, respectively, before jumping to .271 and .265 the past two seasons.
All of this makes it all the more surprising that Donaldson didn’t emerge before 2013. He certainly had no problems at Low-A or High-A, and while his 2009 Double-A stint was light on power, his 120 wRC+ there was good enough to earn a promotion to Triple-A in 2010. But in his first two trips through Triple-A, things evened out.
In a vacuum, a .782 OPS isn’t exactly horrible, but it’s also not the sort of performance that’s apt to get a 24- or 25-year-old minor leaguer rushed onto the major-league roster. But eventually, Donaldson found his way to the majors. You will remember that 2011 marked the final season in which Donaldson played primarily as a catcher, and after he ditched the tools of ignorance he made enough of an impression during the 2012 season to earn a shot at the full-time role, though it came with fits and starts. He began the season with Oakland and started seven of the first nine games at third base, but hit just .094/.094/.094 (three singles in 32 PA) and was sent packing. He would get the call again in May, but in 68 PA between May and June, he would hit just .182/.191/.303. At the end of his second stint in mid-June, his seasonal major-league line stood at .153/.160/.235 in 100 plate appearance. If you had never heard from him again at that point, you wouldn’t have been too surprised.
Then in August, Brandon Inge got hurt, and back up came Donaldson. Now having been a third baseman for the better part of a season, he had adjusted. He started at third in all but one of Oakland’s final 48 games, hitting .290/.356/.489 in the process. The A’s made the playoffs, but better yet, they had found their full-time third baseman.
Still, those 47 games represent the bulk of Donaldson’s pre-age-27 playing time. Let’s pull our list back up again, but instead of focusing on ages 27-30, let’s look at the time before age 27.
WAR Before Age 27
No longer nestled in between Maddux and Mantle, is he? The only players even in Donaldson’s zip code are the two pre-1900s pitchers, both of whose careers also started at age 26.
Josh Donaldson has been historically great the past four seasons. Before them, he was barely a major leaguer. As you can imagine, that’s pretty rare. There are extenuating circumstances, of course. We’ll never know how much quicker Donaldson might have come along had he started his pro career at the hot corner. But that’s water under the bridge. Now we can mention him in Hall of Fame conversations and it doesn’t sound ludicrous, thanks to his past four seasons. Now he’s a MVP who just had a four-year stretch that puts him in the conversation with the best of all time. And he might be getting even better as a hitter. Steamer projects him to be the third-best position player in the game, so expect him to continue to bring the rain.