Is Josh Donaldson Underrated?

Ben Carter asks a very valid question.

When we think of underrated players in the game of baseball, the mind tends to go to guys with undervalued skills, whether that be defense (Kevin Kiermaier), plate discipline (Ben Zobrist) or durability (Mark Buehrle). Generally, we don’t tend to think of perennial MVP candidates who have comfortably placed themselves among the very best in the game.
Yet, here I am, making the argument that Josh Donaldson – 2015 AL MVP, 3x MLB All Star and 2x Silver Slugger award winner – is underrated.

One of the issues that Donaldson has faced is that he has been measured, rightly or wrongly, against the achievements of Mike Trout. In the MVP arguments of the past two years, this false dichotomy has been created between enlightened, cerebral fans who appreciate the other-worldly all-round talents of Mike Trout despite his team and the backward, stone-age fans who can’t see beyond Josh Donaldson’s gaudy home run and RBI totals on a terrific team.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I’m not here to argue that Donaldson is better than Trout because such one-v-one arguments invariably involve an attempt to denigrate the abilities of the other player which is kind of dumb when we’re talking about two of the greatest athletes on the planet.

Instead, I want to encourage an appreciation of what Josh Donaldson has done and how he has managed to do it.

Most of you will, I’m sure, be familiar with Donaldson’s story. A converted catcher prospect, Donaldson struggled to lock down a position on the Oakland major league roster in 2011 and 2012 – already 26 years of age then – but exploded in 2013 into a seven win player, running elite walk and strikeout rates with a decent amount of power to boot.

After his now infamous trade to Toronto, he decided he wanted to keep being an elite Major League hitter but now he wanted to hit for more power too, so he mashed 41 bombs and won the AL MVP award. In 2016 he produced basically the same stat-line but with less fanfare.

Paul Swydan and Owen Watson have both written terrific articles explaining just how rare it is for a player to go from nobody to MVP at age 28 and Donaldson himself has explained in detail the adjustments he had to make to revive his career.

But Donaldson didn’t just become a league average player or enjoy a Leicester City-esque one-year wonder of dominance. Since 2013, Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball and you probably could have guessed that. You may have guessed Donaldson was second. What you probably didn’t realise is that the gap between Trout and Donaldson over that period is smaller than between Donaldson and Goldschmidt, in third place.

Mike Trout has had the greatest start to a career we have ever seen on a baseball field, and yet Donaldson is still there, snapping on his heels, the 31 year old with an outrageous leg kick and even outrageous-er haircut.

As for how he’s managed the renaissance, Donaldson’s story again bears listening to. Unlike players like Trout and Cabrera, he was not blessed with a magical natural swing, instead spending painstaking hours refining his setup, his load, his leg-kick and of course that high finish we’ve all come to recognise.

In a frankly brilliant video with MLB network, Donaldson talked about his approach at the plate, from the minutiae at the top of his leg-kick to the adjustments he makes mid-swing for pitches up or down, inside or outside. The entire video is absolutely worth watching below, because Donaldson speaks eloquently and honestly, but the final line sums it up best. DeRosa: ‘But you’re thinking damage? At all times?’ JD: ‘Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I.’

Now I have nowhere near the qualifications, experience or confidence to do anything close to a swing analysis, but purely from watching Donaldson take his hacks it becomes fairly evident he wants to do damage. And for a guy who isn’t particularly big, at six feet, 215 pounds, he needs to use every ounce of torque and drive he can from his body.

What Donaldson recognised is that a player with his skill-set has no value from ground-balls and weak base hits. Baseball no longer has room for a player that can hit an empty .300 without stealing 40 bases or playing elite up-the-middle defense. Donaldson couldn’t be content with slapping base hits because it wouldn’t have brought him a Major League job. Instead, he chose to revamp his swing and do serious damage on pitches he could drive.

The result, of course, is one of the greatest four-season stretches in recent baseball history and a fighting shot at a hall-of-fame career despite the late career start. As he enters the typical decline years for sluggers, Donaldson will need a bit of luck to avoid injury and a good deal of hard work to maintain his strength and fitness. If there’s one thing his career has proven so far however, it’s that hard work is what he does best.

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