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On Josh Donaldson and Low Expectations

Unlike in his previous stint in Oakland, this photo was preceded by Donaldson making contact with the ball.
Unlike in his previous stint in Oakland, this photo was preceded by Donaldson making contact with the ball.

Josh Donaldson has had quite an interesting 2012 season. He made the roster out of Spring Training at a position which he had practically never played before, and proceeded to suck in pretty much every way possible. He played better defense than, say, Bartolo Colon would have done if forced into emergency duty, and he even made a few really impressive plays. He still looked like a guy who was learning on the job, though. That was the good news. The bad news was his hitting. I will display this problem numerically:

Donaldson, first 28 games, 100 PA's: .153/.160/.235, 1 HR, 1 walk, 26 strikeouts

To make matters worse, that one walk came in his very last game in Oakland on June 13. The guy with a career .365 OBP in the minors didn't draw a walk in the Majors until June. His OPS+ wasn't even a number, it was just a little frowny face with mutton chops. Things weren't going well for Donaldson, and at age 26, he was running out of time to make an impression.

With Brandon Inge now on board, hitting grand slams at a faster pace than Donaldson could draw walks (not an exaggeration), Donaldson had seemingly missed his opportunity. He went back to Sacramento, and figured that he was probably out of the A's immediate plans. He didn't give up, however. He continued to play third base, and he started to hit like he'd never hit before. His stats, with some context:

2010, AAA: .812 OPS, 104 wRC+, 348 PA's (.238/.336/.476)
2011, AAA: .783 OPS, 95 wRC+, 503 PA's (.261/.344/.439)
2012, AAA: 1.000 OPS, 155 wRC+, 234 PA's (.335/.402/.598)

At age 26, Donaldson had finally figured out AAA. This could have been the result of any number of things. He could have just simply been dominating pitchers who are a few years younger than he is, he could have been fortunate with his BABIP (.350), or perhaps his offense improved once he moved out from behind the plate (although he still spent some time at catcher for Sacramento this year). Die-hard A's fans hoped for a different explanation, though: Like Chris Carter before him, maybe Donaldson was a late bloomer who had finally figured things out after several seasons in AAA.

And then, Inge hurt his shoulder. Apparently he didn't really dislocate it and pop it back into place mid-inning, but I'm still going to pretend in my mind that that's what happened because that story is totally boss. The A's announced that Donaldson would be filling in while Inge went on the DL. Regardless of your explanations for Donaldson's new-found minor-league success, one fact remained: Expectations were low. Your criteria may have varied, but this is pretty much what I was hoping for: Don't injure any of our pitchers by beaning them with an errant throw to first, and don't hit into a quadruple-play. Other than that, go crazy, Josh. Go 0-for-50 with 51 strikeouts. There is no way you can disappoint me, because I expect literally nothing out of you.

And those are the magic words for these 2012 A's. "I expect nothing out of you." Once you tell that to a rookie in Oakland, he responds by going absolutely nuts, just to make you look like a dick. It's similar to feeding a Mogwai after midnight.

Donaldson didn't wait long to capitalize on his second chance. In his first at-bat on August 14, he singled the other way. It was one of only three hits the A's would get against the Royals that day. The second time he came to the plate, he drew a walk. It took him nearly 100 plate appearances to draw his first walk in 2012, and it took him only 2 to draw his second. Baseball! He struck out looking in his final trip, but I saw that at-bat and it was a B.S. call.

In his second game back, he went 2-for-4 with a homer. In his fourth game back, he went 4-for-4, driving in runs with two of those hits and serving as the primary offensive hero in a game that Oakland won. It was the first time an Athletics' third baseman got 4 hits in a game since Jethro Lincoln (yes, Abe's brother) in 1869, when the team played in rural Kentucky in a stadium made of logs. Or maybe it was Mark Bellhorn who did it. Either way, it was a long time ago, so much so that it wasn't in this century.

Donaldson has been red-hot since re-joining the A's. His line so far:

Donaldson, last 4 games, 15 PA's: .500/.533/.786, 1 HR, 1 walk, 3 strikeouts

He has 7 hits in 15 plate appearances. In his first 100 PA's, he only picked up 15 hits. He's also matched his home run and walk totals from his previous stint. I can't speak for his defense, since I missed a couple of the games last week, but he at least hasn't committed any official errors.

The word is that Inge will be ready to re-join the team after the minimum 15-day DL stint. In the meantime, Oakland is getting a better look at a player who hasn't yet forced himself into their long-term plans. If Donaldson succeeds, then there is another option for the left side of the infield. If he flops, then Inge will be back soon to save the day. He's making the most of his opportunity so far, and has already exceeded most fans' wildest dreams in his first four games.

When expectations are as low as they were for Donaldson, though, it is virtually impossible to fail.