Man on Fire: Oakland Athletics 3B Josh Donaldson
One of the more surprising story lines of the Oakland A's 2013 season has been the incredible performance of Josh Donaldson. The third baseman currently ranks in the top ten in the AL in batting average, on-base-percentage, slugging percentage and WAR among position players. He is No. 10 in the numberFire Player Power Rankings, and only Miguel Cabrera ranks higher among third basemen.
Donaldson has powered the A’s lineup so far, but one has to wonder if he can keep it up.
With only three partial seasons in the majors (all with Oakland), Donaldson still hasn’t even reached 600 career plate appearances. That sample size is small, but for what it is worth, he has shown continual improvement as he has acquired more experience.
Those numbers don’t even tell the whole story, as Donaldson continually improved throughout 2012, recording his best averages across the board in August and September, after a slow start in April and May. Still, it’s fair to ask if a 27 year old catcher-turned-third-baseman has really improved, or if he’s simply benefiting from a clustering of good performances to start the season.
Drafted in the first round in 2007, Donaldson was a relatively patient hitter in the minors. Over the course of his minor league career, he struck out in 17 percent of plate appearances, while walking in 11 percent. Those solid numbers helped him post a career OPS of .834 in the minors.
However, when Donaldson reached the Show for the first time in 2010, his patient approach vanished, and he swung from the heels at every pitch. His strikeout percentage in 14 games in 2010 was 35.3 percent, while he walked in just 5.9 percent of plate appearances. Unsurprisingly, that earned him a trip back to the minors that lasted until 2012. During the first three months last season, he showed slight improvement, but was still below average with a strikeout percentage of 26.5 percent and an abysmal one walk in 98 plate appearances.
Nonetheless, Donaldson retained the good power he had displayed in the minors this whole time. 40 percent of his hits were extra base knocks in 2010, 38 percent in 2012. His power was well above average. He just wasn't connecting enough with the ball and was drawing too few walks to be an efficient hitter.
The good news for Donaldson is that by the end of June last year, he had only accumulated 132 plate appearances. Although he was still flailing a bit, he had shown considerable improvement each month, and that continued. He became ever more patient, ending 2012 with a strikeout percentage of 20.8 percent, and this year has that number down to 16.5 percent, an above average mark. He's also walking in 11 percent of his trips to the plate this year.
The patience has made him an improved hitter. 12.4 percent of his plate appearances end in an extra base hit. 3.7 percent result in a homerun.
Those who expect Donaldson to fall off can point to his age and his lack of any substantial major league track record. And though he was always a patient hitter adept at drawing walks and hitting for power in the minors, he never hit for average quite like he is this season (.330).
Those are all fair points, especially the one about his average. But it's also not quite fair to compare Donaldson to guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout and say that if he didn't develop sooner, he won't develop at all. They are emerging superstars, while Donaldson is at best an emerging star. Plenty of guys have blossomed later in their 20s to become very good hitters (see Alex Gordon).
Plus, he is just now reaching a full season's worth of plate appearances, and has shown continual progression. A lack of patience was his biggest flaw when he first came up and that has been his greatest area of improvement. His ability to smack doubles and sometimes homers isn't at all surprising.
Ultimately, while there isn't much to support the notion that Josh Donaldson will develop into a hitter who can consistently bat above .300, his track record in the minors and progression through the big leagues indicates that there is no fluke in his power numbers or his ability to get on base. He should continue to be a solid, productive hitter, at the very least. And if his current batting average, the unknown variable at the moment, is a real indicator of his potential, he could emerge as one of the better hitters in the game.