Let's do a thought experiment. For the purposes of this thought experiment, pretend like you didn't already read the title of this article, you cheater! I'm going to give you some stats of a player through their first 100 league plate appearances, and I want you to tell me whether you think this player is a viable candidate for a major league roster spot. Let's check him out.
Would it change your mind any more if I told you that this player was entering his age 26 season, a time when most players are entering their prime years as a baseball player? Aren't 100 PA's enough to prove that this mystery player is never going to cut it at the major league level?
If you assumed from the title of the article that our mystery player is Michael Taylor, you'd be wrong. The mystery player is none other than Josh Donaldson, our awesome third baseman. I did lie to you a little bit- those aren't the first 100 plate appearances of his career. Those are his first 100 plate appearances of 2012. He actually got 34 PA's prior to that in 2010, having a stunning OPS+ of 32. In other words, Josh Donaldson was horrific for his first 134 plate appearances. I've discussed this before, but it bears repeating. Josh Donaldson was well worse than Yuniesky Betancourt through his first 150 plate appearances, and he's blossomed into an All-Star (or, well, should-have-been All-Star) within a year.
Let's do another thought experiment. Here are the stats from 2 players playing their age-25 seasons for the Sacramento River Cats. Which of the two players is more likely to have major league success?
The two are very similar, but while they have similar power and plate discipline stats, player B has got the edge in OBP. This means that Player A was actually a slightly below average hitter in AAA at age 25, while Player B was slightly above average.
Who are these guys? Player A, the below average player, is Josh Donaldson. Player B is Michael Taylor.
Donaldson and Taylor are the same age, and basically came up through the minors together, and at each step of the way, Taylor was actually a superior hitter.
However, public opinion (and seemingly, the team's opinion) of Taylor seems to be that he's already proven that he can't hit in the majors. To be fair, his career major league numbers aren't pretty: he's got a career OPS+ of 13 through 81 plate appearances. But on the flip side, that's still better than Donaldson was after 100! Why are we so convinced that Michael Taylor has definitively proven that he can't hit at the major league level when we've got a 5 WAR third baseman staring us in the face that proves that 100 PA's of epic suckitude don't mean that you don't have major league value?
Part of the answer, of course, is that the A's have a very good outfield, and don't have time to take a chance with Taylor in the middle of a pennant race. Perhaps Taylor would have gotten another shot if he was, say, a second baseman or a catcher. But when Josh Reddick went on the DL, why not give Taylor one more shot?
The real question here is how long of a leash do we give a young player before we are convinced that he can't hit? I'm not actually sure what the answer is, and there's definitely not a rock-steady rule. But I will tell you this: 14 months ago in June 2012, after giving him 134 major league plate appearances if you had told me that we had traded Josh Donaldson for a middling C-level prospect or a PTBNL, I would have been more than fine with that. And if that had happened, instead of talking about the wild card race we'd be rosterbating over Michael Choice and looking forward to 2014.
Don't write off Michael Taylor yet, if he ever gets his shot. I'm not saying it's a certainty that he can hit at the major league level, but if we've learned anything from Josh Donaldson it's that 81 PA's is too early to judge a player.