The Thing About Josh Donaldson’s Defense

As you by now are well aware, Josh Donaldson was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend in a blockbuster deal that sent Brett Lawrie back to Oakland. The Blue Jays gave up Lawrie and a few prospects to immediately get better, because Josh Donaldson is a guy that immediately makes any team better. Over the last two years, only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen have a higher WAR than Donaldson, and Donaldson’s been three wins better than the next-best third baseman. Donaldson can hit, he runs pretty well for a third baseman, and he’s good with the glove. Add those up and you’ve got a hell of a player.

But there’s something to that last point — that he’s good with the glove — that’s been on my mind for awhile. It’s something I was going to write about when the Gold Glove winners were announced, but then Donaldson didn’t win, so I saved it for another day. Now that Donaldson is back in the news, today is that day.

Donaldson, by almost all accounts, appears to be elite with the glove. Since the beginning of 2012, only Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and Juan Uribe have more Defensive Runs Saved at third base. Only Machado, Arenado and Chase Headley have a higher UZR. Only Machado, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria have scored higher on the Fans Scouting Report. It’s not a stretch to call Donaldson a top-three defensive third baseman, by the numbers we have. It’s safe to call him top-five.

The reason Donaldson grades so well in the field is his range. He can do this:

donaldson_

And he can do this:

donaldsongg

Despite the range, despite the numbers, and despite his main competition in Machado missing most of the season, Donaldson didn’t win a Gold Glove in 2014. When the MLB Network crew were discussing potential Gold Glove winners on September 10, Harold Reynolds said he “would throw up if Josh Donaldson won a Gold Glove.” The reasoning behind these two items are the same: errors.

Donaldson committed 23 errors in 2014, topped by only Ian Desmond and Pedro Alvarez. Errors aren’t something we typically think about because we have far better methods to evaluate defense in this day and age. But 23 is a lot and it’s hard to ignore. And what’s more is how Donaldson racked up these errors.

In 2002, errors began being separated into two buckets: fielding errors and throwing errors. Fielding errors are what many of people take issue with. They’re subjective and they’re circumstantial. Guys with great range are sometimes penalized for almost getting to balls that others wouldn’t get to, while guys with poor range sometimes avoid errors by getting nowhere near potentially playable balls. Throwing errors feel like they hold more weight. They’re less subjective, and arm accuracy is an undeniable skill.

In 2014, Donaldson was right in the middle of the pack with six fielding errors. That leaves 17 of his 23 errors to be of the throwing variety. Only two other third baseman had more than eight. Dating back to 2002, Donaldson’s 17 throwing errors are the third-most in a single season by any player.

With Donaldson, you saw throws like this:

donaldson1

Some like this:

donaldson2

And some like this:

donaldson3

This isn’t an issue that’s new to Donaldson, either. He had 10 throwing errors in a full season’s work in 2013. He had six in just half a season’s work the year prior. It was an issue his first couple years, and this year it was elevated to a full-blown problem. Committing 17 throwing errors in one season is a ton, and it’s a cause for concern. In order to get a sense of what that level of concern is, let’s revisit our leaderboard of single-season throwing errors since 2001. For the guys who had seasons as egregious as Donaldon’s: was there a previous issue? Did it continue? What was their future at third base?

  • We’ll start with Mark Reynolds, who had 18 in 2008. He was bad as a rookie in 2007, committing eight in just 100 games, but things got really bad the next year. It never got that bad again, but he also never got over his throwing issues. He committed 27 more throwing errors in his next three seasons and was eventually moved off third base, becoming primarily a first baseman.
  • Next we’ve got Chad Tracy. He committed 16 in his rookie year, which led the Diamondbacks to move him off third base. He played primarily first base the next season and even got some time in the outfield before returning to the hot corner for his third season. He committed 13 more throwing errors that year and was primarily a first baseman after that.
  • Edwin Encarnacion appears on the list twice, as he committed 16 throwing errors in both 2006 and 2008. His double-inclusion in the top six is evidence enough that he never got over his throwing issues, as are his 11 throwing errors in limited action in 2010 that got him moved off the hot corner permanently.
  • Pedro Alvarez is the most extreme case. He committed 16 in 2012, his first full season at third base, followed by 12 the next year and the unbelievable 24 from this most recent season that got him moved off third and onto first base.
  • Ryan Braun is the other member of the 16-and-up club, a feat he committed in his rookie year. He was promptly moved to left field and hasn’t played the infield since then.
  • Ryan Zimmerman is another guy who finds himself in the top 10 more than once, and another guy who didn’t last at third. His throwing issues have lasted his entire career, beginning with a 15-throwing error season back in 2007. He’ll be primarily a first baseman this year and moving forward.

Donaldon’s company is concerning. History has shown that racking up 17 throwing errors in a season isn’t just a blip. It’s an identifiable problem. And every third baseman who has had throwing issues as prevalent as Donaldson’s hasn’t lasted much longer at the position.

To be fair, there is a key difference between Donaldson and those guys, and that’s that Donaldson is otherwise an excellent defender. Of the 10 third baseman who have committed more than 15 throwing errors in a single season since 2002, Donaldson is one of just three to have a positive DRS or UZR, and he’s head and shoulders above the rest. Donaldson’s range alone will allow him to remain a plus defender, so long as his throwing problems don’t reach Pedro Alvarez heights. At the same time, his throwing problems aren’t something we can just ignore, and they seem like something that might not be accurately captured by advanced metrics. I think Zimmerman is perhaps Donaldson’s best comp, as Zimmerman had pretty good range in his prime years. But Donaldson is already pushing 30, and if age or injuries impact his range like they did Zimmerman, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that he could face a similar fate and be moved off the hot corner before too long.

But here’s the thing about Josh Donaldson: even without the defense, he’s still a great player. Even without the defense, he’s probably still the best third baseman in the league. Even if you strip away all of the defensive value that advanced metrics have given him the past two seasons, making him just a league average defender, he’s still tied with Beltre atop the WAR leaderboard at third base. Josh Donaldson doesn’t need his defense to be an great player. He’d have been a +5 WAR player the last two years without it. But the defense is what puts him in an elite class above his peers, and the defense comes with a blemish.

We hoped you liked reading The Thing About Josh Donaldson’s Defense by August Fagerstrom!

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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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IsIt2015Yet?
Guest
IsIt2015Yet?

Alvarez has pretty good range and hands at 3B, too. It’s the throwing that’s a problem.

maguro
Guest
maguro

Alvarez really doesn’t have good range, -3.3 RngR career. He does have better range than you might expect from someone with his body type but he’s still below average.

matt w
Guest
matt w

Might depend on the stat you use; at least last year, DRS and Total Zone ranked Alvarez’s range much higher than UZR did (and Fielding Runs Above Average, insanely, ranked him positive). The stats may have some trouble handling the Pirates’ shifts.

Yirmiyahu
Member

Still don’t see why we should be concerned about Donaldson’s defense. Yes, he has a problem with errors. Yes, most of his errors are throwing errors. Yes, throwing errors are less subjective and more predictive than fielding errors.

If he makes 20 errors a season, but ranges to make 40 plays that your average 3B wouldn’t make… What’s the problem? An out is an out.

Is there any evidence that for a player like Donaldson (great range, bad throwing accuracy), his skillset will decline sooner than other 3Bmen?