The Case for Josh Donaldson for American League MVP

This week, we’re running a series of posts laying out the case for the most compelling candidates for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. These posts are designed to make an affirmative argument for their subject and are not intended to serve as comprehensive looks at every candidate on their own. The authors tasked with writing these posts may not even believe their subject actually deserves to win, but they were brave enough to make the case anyway. The goal of these posts is to lay out the potential reasons for voters to consider a variety of candidates and to allow the readers to decide which argument is most persuasive.

Other cases: Jose Altuve for AL MVP / Mookie Betts for AL MVP / Mike Trout for AL MVP / Manny Machado for AL MVP.

Josh Donaldson was the American League’s Most Valuable Player last season, edging out Mike Trout by receiving 23 of 30 first-place votes and earning 385 vote points, compared to Trout’s 304. Donaldson was the best player on a division-winning team and, by routinely delivering in key moments, led the league in Win Probability Added for his 93-win club.

Donaldson was great, and clutch, and a winner. And this year, he’s arguably gotten better. The wRC+ has gone up. He’s again been one of baseball’s most productive hitters in high-leverage situations. He remains one of the game’s top defensive third basemen. The reigning MVP has, in many ways, built on his award-winning season. But that’s not why he should win it again.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. There’s no need to pretend. As things stand today, the numbers just don’t add up. When Neil Weinberg kicked this series off by making the case for Mike Trout, he did so convincingly, because the case for Trout, by the numbers, is pretty damn convincing. I mean, he leads baseball in every version of WAR. He leads in context-neutral offense, and he leads in context-dependent offense. And, unlike last year, when the gap between Trout and Donaldson’s WAR figures was small enough to be well within the margin of error, the present 1.6-win gap that exists is very difficult to handwave.

I’ll say this much: for my money, Donaldson is the obvious No. 2 to Trout, statistically speaking. When Neil made the case for Trout, Donaldson was the runner-up in most every category. And then the gap gets closer when you factor in clutch performance, if that’s something you’re inclined to do. The gap gets closer when you factor in the team-leverage adjustment, like Craig Edwards did with Manny Machado’s case, if that’s something you’re inclined to do. And then, hell, the gap can get even closer if you don’t buy single-season defensive metrics as being representative of single-season defensive performance, and instead feel more comfortable with a larger sample, which would bump Donaldson’s WAR up a tick, since his numbers in that department are the outlier when compared to each of the last three excellent seasons. If that’s something you’re inclined to do.

You can do all of that, and it’ll shrink the 1.6-win gap that presently exists between Trout and Donaldson. But again, I’m not here to lie to you. In my heart of hearts, I just can’t buy that doing all that eliminates the entire gap and gives Donaldson the edge. It gets him close, but I can’t sit here with a clear conscious and attempt to make a statistical case for Donaldson over Trout. So, instead, we’ve got to go to the abstract.

There are five “rules” to the voting process for MVP, and as we all know, even those “rules” are subjective. The first two words of the first “rule” are “Actual value,” and since value cannot be objectively defined, uniform interpretation is immediately thrown out the window. The third “rule” of the voting process asks voters to consider a player’s “character, disposition, loyalty and effort.” Again, that’s all subjective, but what I take that to mean is: you ought to consider the off-field impact of the player’s contributions to the game, too.

Now, I’m going to embed a video of Josh Donaldson, off the playing field. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you watch the whole thing. It’s a real delight.

I hereby submit that this YouTube video, in which a 30-year-old, makeup’d man with a bad haircut demonstrates one of his sporting moves in a television studio while wearing tight pants and loafers, is Josh Donaldson’s strongest argument for being the game’s Most Valuable Player.

I’ll explain. YouTube comment sections are commonly a vile place. Here’s a sampling of YouTube comments on this video:

  • “Funny. I gave this a try today and hit a HR to the deepest part of CF. This is truly gold.”
  • “just tried this in the cage, i can see how it can bring the rain. putting it all together is key”
  • “amazing. anyone who wants to improve in hitting try all of this. I practiced this today and solid contact lasers up the middle and deep center. Josh knows what he’s talking about and it’s absolutely golden.”
  • “I’m an older guy in my late 30’s, so since I can’t play fast pitch anymore I’ve been playing recreational men’s slow pitch softball and this batting technique works extremely well for softball too.”
  • “this kind of information has been out there for years. rarely do we hear it straight from a pros mouth though. Steve Englishbey has been talking about ALL of this and more in a very scientific manner for over a decade. if you’re interested, look him up, he changed the way I hit and made the game fun again, and by extension I was able to help others enjoy the game again too”
  • “I’m almost in tears watching this. I’ve been teaching this ever since attending an Epstein Hitting training three years ago. Every lesson is a struggle, but the kids that listen have become great hitters. Now I can send the stubborn coaches and parents this video. He explains this so well and well, he has a bit of stature:)”

And now, the money quote from Donaldson, straight from the video:

“I’ll tell you, if you’re 10 years old, and your coach says get on top of the ball, tell him no. Because in the big leagues, these things that they call ground balls are outs. They don’t pay you for ground balls. They pay you for doubles. They pay you for homers.”

There isn’t much that can be said objectively about the MVP voting process, but Josh Donaldson is objectively good for the game of baseball. His swing is the future swing of the prototypical major leaguer. Four years ago, Donaldson began rejecting traditional coaching methods, and we’re now seeing players across the league adapt a similar approach. Power is nearly at an all-time high, and while the leading cause for that is probably a juiced ball, it’s also difficult to ignore the near-identical adjustments made by guys like Altuve, Matt Carpenter, Brian Dozier, Jake Lamb, and countless others in an effort to get the ball in the air and maximize production by maximizing power. Alex Bregman, a 22-year-old who’s been in the majors for barely a month, told me in Cleveland earlier this week that “We don’t want to get the ball on the ground. Up here, that’s an out.” Donaldson wasn’t the first guy to declare war on the ground ball, but he’s certainly made himself the most vocal, and in doing so, has, in a sense, become the face of the revolutionized modern slugger.

And, aside from the player himself, who’s the MVP award for, anyway? Is it for us, the folks who refresh FanGraphs leaderboards daily and find Mike Trout’s name at the top every time? No. We know who the best player in baseball is. We’ve known for five years. We don’t need an award to tell us. Moreso than to validate our own statistical beliefs, maybe the MVP award is best used for exposure to the casual fan and to the youth. We spend so much time wondering about how to sell the game of baseball to kids. Maybe giving a guy like Donaldson, a league-average hitter in Triple-A as a 25-year-old and a testament to hard work, coaching, and open-mindedness, as much recognition as possible for his accomplishments and, more importantly, his efforts to share the secret behind those accomplishments with the masses is a good place start.

Think about the children. Do the right thing. Vote Josh Donaldson for MVP.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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eyesoverthecity
6 years ago

You certainly get points for the most creative, albeit flawed, argument for your guy yet.