Josh Donaldson’s Last Four Seasons, In Context

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.

WAR Leaders, Ages 27-30, 1871-2016
Rank Name Years Hit Pit Tot
1 Ted Williams 1946-1949 40.6 40.6
2 Babe Ruth 1922-1925 37.5 37.5
3 Stan Musial 1948-1951 35.4 35.4
4 Carl Yastrzemski 1967-1970 35.0 35.0
5 Rogers Hornsby 1923-1926 35.0 35.0
6 Ty Cobb 1914-1917 34.4 34.4
7 Pete Alexander 1914-1917 0.9 33.3 34.2
8 Wade Boggs 1985-1988 34.1 34.1
9 Lou Gehrig 1930-1933 34.0 34.0
10 Pedro Martinez 1999-2002 -0.1 33.9 33.8
11 Willie Mays 1958-1961 33.8 33.8
12 Barry Bonds 1992-1995 33.8 33.8
13 Walter Johnson 1915-1918 3.3 30.3 33.6
14 Christy Mathewson 1908-1911 1.6 32.0 33.6
15 Guy Hecker 1883-1886 7.5 25.8 33.3
16 Sandy Koufax 1963-1966 -1.0 34.3 33.3
17 Honus Wagner 1901-1904 32.4 0.1 32.5
18 Joe Morgan 1971-1974 32.2 32.2
19 Hank Aaron 1961-1964 32.2 32.2
20 Albert Pujols 2007-2010 31.7 31.7
21 Chase Utley 2006-2009 31.3 31.3
22 Mike Schmidt 1977-1980 31.1 31.1
23 Charley Radbourn 1882-1885 3.7 27.4 31.1
24 Greg Maddux 1993-1996 0.1 30.7 30.8
25 Josh Donaldson 2013-2016 30.5 30.5
26 Mickey Mantle 1959-1962 29.9 29.9
27 Ed Walsh 1908-1911 1.1 28.6 29.7
28 Ernie Banks 1958-1961 29.5 29.5
29 Eddie Collins 1914-1917 29.3 29.3
30 Fergie Jenkins 1970-1973 1.1 28.1 29.2

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:

WAR Leaders, Ages 27-30, 1985-2016
Rank Name Years Hit Pit Tot
1 Wade Boggs 1985-1988 34.1 34.1
2 Barry Bonds 1992-1995 33.8 33.8
3 Pedro Martinez 1999-2002 -0.1 33.9 33.8
4 Albert Pujols 2007-2010 31.7 31.7
5 Chase Utley 2006-2009 31.3 31.3
6 Greg Maddux 1993-1996 0.1 30.7 30.8
7 Josh Donaldson 2013-2016 30.5 30.5

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.

Josh Donaldson Breakdown
Years Age Level PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
2007-2009 21-23 R-AA 1,217 0.280 0.374 0.456 0.830
2010-2011 24-25 AAA-MLB 885 0.248 0.336 0.447 0.782
2012-2016 26-30 AAA-MLB 3,302 0.284 0.369 0.512 0.882

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.

Age 27-30 WAR Leaders,
WAR Before Age 27
Name Pre-27 27-30
Ty Cobb 63.5 34.4
Mickey Mantle 61.3 29.9
Rogers Hornsby 57.5 35.0
Babe Ruth 57.5 37.5
Walter Johnson 53.9 33.6
Albert Pujols 45.8 31.7
Eddie Collins 45.4 29.3
Christy Mathewson 44.5 33.6
Hank Aaron 43.5 32.2
Lou Gehrig 40.1 34.0
Willie Mays 39.5 33.8
Barry Bonds 38.9 33.8
Stan Musial 38.6 35.4
Ted Williams 36.5 40.6
Greg Maddux 28.2 30.8
Mike Schmidt 27.8 31.1
Pedro Martinez 26.9 33.8
Carl Yastrzemski 25.4 35.0
Ernie Banks 21.2 29.5
Fergie Jenkins 21.1 29.2
Joe Morgan 19.9 32.2
Honus Wagner 17.7 32.5
Wade Boggs 17.6 34.1
Sandy Koufax 17.5 33.3
Pete Alexander 16.7 34.2
Ed Walsh 12.9 29.7
Chase Utley 8.9 31.3
Guy Hecker 3.3 33.3
Charley Radbourn 2.5 31.1
Josh Donaldson 1.2 30.5

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.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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5 years ago

As a Jays fan, I’m thrilled to read this but, considering all of the above, why are the projections so low on him (relatively, anyway) at 6 WAR? What regression are they all counting on?

5 years ago
Reply to  JaysCraze

The biggest cause of that “pessimism” is he’s being projected for 630 plate appearances on the depth charts. The Steamer projection extrapolated to the 700 he attained last year would hit 6.7 WAR, which is a reasonable decline.

If it makes you feel better, Zips projects 7 WAR over 657 PAs.

5 years ago
Reply to  CM52

Hm, don’t know how I didn’t see those on the Projects page, but thanks! It DOES make me feel better 😛

5 years ago
Reply to  JaysCraze

Has his defense declined in real life? His defensive rating in Strat took a hit this year.

5 years ago
Reply to  Spartacus

There are so many 2016 cards (including Donaldson’s) that I am dying to see.

5 years ago
Reply to  JaysCraze

6 WAR projection is outstanding. Only two position players are projected better, one of which is named Trout. I’m a jays fan, too, and will be pretty happy if he meets his projection.

5 years ago
Reply to  Paul Swydan

Yes,if you are not mike trout you probably need to hit some luck in things like BABIP,HR/FB and health on top of great ability to hit 7 plus war.

John Autin
5 years ago
Reply to  JaysCraze

Donaldson is 31 this year, and the vast majority of players are in decline by that age.

I took all the modern players who totaled at least 20 bWAR over ages 27-30:
— They averaged 6.2 bWAR per year in that span.
— At age 31, they averaged 5.0 bWAR, a 20% decline from that prior average.

Donaldson is projected to decline at a similar rate.