Will the Real Josh Donaldson Please Stand Up?

Josh Donaldson shows off the newest move in his Rain Dance. - Bob Levey

In early 2012, Josh Donaldson was a worse hitter than Barry Zito. In 2013, he has a legitimate case for the All-Star team. Which is the Real Josh Donaldson? What can this teach us about developing hitting prospects?

The following is a transcript from of a real gchat conversation that took place on April 17th, 2012, between me and my friend Mike (a Mets fan):

me: our starting 3b [Donaldson]

has an OPS+ of -32

i didn't even know it was possible to have a negative ops+

Mike: wow

me: it's gotta be a typo

it has to be, right?

jesus

his OPS is .240

what the f***

Mike: he should play for the mets

we like guys like that

OPS+ is scaled to league average, so an OPS+ of 100 is an average major league hitter. An OPS+ of 110 means the hitter is 10% better than average; an OPS+ of -32 means he is 132% worse than average. In Bobby Crosby's worst season, he had an OPS+ of 67. In Keith Ginter's memorable year for the A's, he had an OPS+ of 32. Barry Zito had an OPS+ of -27 last year.

Since he's been hitting so well this year, we've tried to blot it from our collective memory, but there are no ifs ands or buts about it: Josh Donaldson, the Bringer of Rain, was a terrible hitter on an epic scale during the first half of last season. Here are Josh Donaldson's split numbers from the first half of last season until he was sent down to the minors (WARNING: NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART):

Honestly, in May of last year if you had told me we had traded Donaldson for cash considerations, I wouldn't have lost sleep over it. Donaldson had exactly 1 walk in the first half of last year (and didn't get his first free pass until June), and he didn't have a single extra base hit in March, April, or June. Of course, when Donaldson was called back up, he absolutely raked for a month, posting an obscene 182 OPS+ in August. We were all excited that perhaps this new Donaldson was the one we had been waiting for all along, but we honestly weren't sure what we were going to get in 2013.


This year, Donaldson has been playing lights-out for two months. He's 12th in the league in fWAR and 20th in bWAR (the two different calculations by FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, respectively). We all want to believe that this new Josh Donaldson is the Real Josh Donaldson, but how can we reconcile the mighty Bringer of Rain of 2013 with the wimpy Bringer of Drizzle of early 2012?

There are three possibilities:

1. Early 2012 Josh Donaldson is the Real Josh Donaldson, and he's been on a hot streak of epic proportions for a few months (highly unlikely)

2. 2013 Josh Donaldson is the Real Josh Donaldson, and he had a cold streak of epic proportions for a month and a half in 2012 (more likely)

3. The Real Josh Donaldson can be found somewhere in the middle (most likely)

I doubt Josh Donaldson will maintain a 152 OPS+ for the entire season, but there are several encouraging signs that Josh Donaldson's true talent level is much closer to his 2013 (and second half of 2012) performance than his early 2012 showing.

Walk Rate / Strikeout Rate

In Donaldson's disastrous first half of 2012, he had a K% of 26%, with a walk rate of 1% (!!!!). That's not very good at all. In the second half, he cut down the K's to 18%, and raised his walk rate to 6.7%. This year, his walk rate is all the way up to 10.8%, while the K's have dropped a bit more to 17%. Donaldson's plate discipline is much improved- and are more in line with his minor league averages than his first half of 2012. In the minors, he consistently posted walk rates around 10% What's more, K% and walk rate are much more predictive of future performance than stats like batting average.

Batted Ball Profile

Josh had a .153 batting average in that disastrous first half of 2012, but also had a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .194. A BABIP that low is indicative of at least some bad luck, although this is also partially do to the fact that he was hitting a lot of grounders and not many line drives, meaning he wasn't making very good contact.

In the first half of 2012, he was hitting only 17% of his balls for line drives. Since then, he has hit 24% of balls as line drives, a massive improvement. The fact that he's been able to maintain those percentages for 386 at-bats mean that they're likely the real deal and not just a hot streak.

On the other hand, Donaldson does have a .360 BABIP in 2013. While a high line-drive rate does typically mean a higher-than-average BABIP, his numbers this season are likely slightly inflated by some degree of luck.

Defense

Even if Donaldson's offensive numbers come back to earth a bit, he still derives a large amount of value from his fielding. In only 75 games last year, Donaldson was able to rack up 0.6 WAR from his defense alone. Even if his hitting drops off a bit, he's still a valuable contributor to the team due to his range at 3B.

Since Donaldson has had nearly 400 PA's since getting called up again last August versus only about 100 in the first half of 2012, we have a large enough sample to begin concluding that the new and improved Bringer of Rain is for real. Do I think he's going to post a wRC+ higher than Mike Trout's for the whole year? No. Do I think it's likely that Donaldson has been playing over his head for the last 2 months? Yes. But am I becoming more and more convinced that his epic disaster of April and May 2012 was an incredible slump rather than a sign of true lack of ability? You bet.

Of course, assuming that the first half of 2012 was an "epic slump" assumes that Donaldson's true talent level hasn't changed much, and that he was very unlucky during April and May 2012. We know that young players typically do improve as they get older, but we don't typically see a player improve by such leaps and bounds in a matter of months. It's possible that Donaldson really did just "put it all together" when he was called up in August, but it's more likely that he just wasn't given a long enough leash for his numbers to regress to the mean, which he was finally able to showcase in the second half of the season.

The stark contrast of Donaldson's first half of 2012 and his numbers in 2013 begs the question: How long of a leash do we need to give young players before they have definitively proven they can't hit at the major league level? Clearly with Donaldson, 100 at-bats was not close to enough. Might this same principle apply to Michael Taylor, who has yet to receive more than 35 plate appearances in any major league season? How long do you have to wait for a prospect to hit before you know whether they're cold out of the gate, or just bad at hitting?

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