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Josh Donaldson and traditional stats

Dilip Vishwanat

In 2014, Josh Donaldson posted 7.4 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. That number ranked second in the entire American League, tied with pitcher Corey Kluber and behind only Mike Trout. In 2013, his 8.0 bWAR ranked second in the entire AL, again behind only Trout. In each of the last two seasons, he's been one of the two best players in the entire league, if you put any belief at all in WAR. Here is a list of the major distinctions he has received over that time:

- Sept. 2013 AL Player of the Month
- started 2014 All-Star Game
- won 2014 Fielding Bible award

That's it right there. That's everything he's ever gotten. Possibly the second-best player in the whole league, and surely the best third baseman, and he has virtually nothing to show for it on a personal level. He has a Player of the Month award, an honor that no one really keeps track of or even remembers a week after it's issued. He has that All-Star bid, which was given to him by the fans, not the sportswriters. And he has the Fielding Bible award, which most people haven't even heard of. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Donaldson is a two-way player, so instead of absolutely dominating on one side of the ball, like Miguel Cabrera on offense or Andrelton Simmons on defense, he is merely fantastic on both sides. The diversity of skills helps his team monumentally, but it means his own personal resume doesn't pop off of the page in any one category.
  2. Some of the things that Donaldson does best are measured with advanced metrics, meaning that they are ignored by many mainstream analysts.

Donaldson was a notable snub from the 2013 All-Star team, as manager Jim Leyland opted instead to go with Jason Kipnis as a fourth second baseman and Manny Machado as the only backup at the hot corner. When it came time to vote for MVP, Miguel Cabrera won over the statistically superior Mike Trout due in large part to his team's greater success; in the same vote, Donaldson, who ranked second in the league in WAR and led his team to the postseason as the Player of the Month for September, finished fourth behind Chris Davis, whose 53 homers didn't get his Orioles within half a dozen games of a playoff berth. These are mostly the nitpicks of a bitter stathead, but they begin to set the precedent of Donaldson as an underrated player who doesn't get his full due.


The 2014 awards are starting to come in, and so far things have not gotten better for Donaldson. Despite winning the Fielding Bible award at third base, he lost out to Seattle's Kyle Seager for the Gold Glove. And despite coming within a possum's tail of a 30/100 season, he lost the Silver Slugger award to Texas' Adrian Beltre.  To be clear, neither award went to an undeserving player. Seager is an excellent fielder, and Beltre posted an OPS+ of 147. But when your team's player gets passed over for awards, you want to know why, darnit.

Let's start with the Gold Glove. This one comes down to a simple case of traditional stats vs. advanced metrics -- errors and fielding percentage on one side, UZR and DRS on the other. This is where Donaldson's skills get sold short by the traditional metrics. His strength is making difficult plays that other third basemen can't make, but his weakness is that he botches a few more routine plays than others do. He also does the former more than he does the latter, so it does net out to a positive overall for the team.

The problem is that fielding percentage only measures how often you mess up, and doesn't necessarily give you fair credit for the extra plays you make. Think of it this way -- if you make 20 plays that no one else can make, but also 10 more errors, you've made 10 extra outs over the next guy. But that would be a fielding percentage of only .500, which would hurt your overall average. On the other hand, the other guy would make those 10 routine plays, but the other 20 balls that you turned into outs would go by him for hits and no one would think twice about it; his fielding percentage would go up. And thus, you have Donaldson's .952 fielding percentage against Seager's .981 mark. And that's before you get into the absurd subjectivity of the error stat itself, as different scorers can have different standards for what plays require ordinary effort.

However, more complete metrics take those good plays into account, which is why Donaldson holds a big edge in Defensive Runs Saved (20 vs. 10) and Ultimate Zone Rating (15.5 vs. 10.6). Donaldson made 15 more errors than Seager did (all throwing errors), but he also accounted for 46 more outs. Not all of those extra outs were necessarily amazing plays, but as long as some of them were he was probably more valuable overall. Some of the throwing errors may also have come on balls that Seager wouldn't have fielded in the first place. And that's what this particular debate really comes down to. Is the best fielder the guy who makes all the routine plays mistake-free, but doesn't perform the spectacular ones as often? Or is it the guy who blows your mind with highlight-reel plays but is prone to flub a gimme now and then? This is how you can get eight of the 12 Fielding Bible voters ranking Donaldson No. 1 and three more at No. 2, but also have Harold Reynolds claiming that he will throw up if Donnie wins the Gold Glove. He's an extreme case on the spectrum of this particular belief system.

Here's one last graphic that I think sums up this dichotomy quite well. Fangraphs features Inside Edge fielding stats, which rate every single play on a scale from either Impossible (0% chance of success) to Certain (100% chance). Here is where Donaldson and Seager rank in the various ranges:

Name 1-10% 10-40% 40-60% 60-90% 90-100%
Donaldson 11.4 26.1 73.7 77.4 96.8
Seager 0.0 30.0 62.5 70.6 98.6

Now, note that the sample size dwindles as the percentage goes down. Donaldson's 11.4 percent on the really tough plays means that he made four out of 35. And Seager does register well in that 10-40 percent range. But you can start to visualize how Seager pumps up his value by converting all of the easy chances whereas Donaldson makes up for his erratic arm by making more difficult plays. Seager led the league in the 90-100 percent category, but Donaldson was the class of the AL in the 1-10 percent and 40-60 percent ranges. Pick your preference for defensive style, just know that you can't go wrong either way. This is like a Trout/Cabrera MVP debate -- I personally think Donaldson was better, but Seager is a worthy winner.


The Silver Slugger is much the same case. Last year, I was miffed when J.J. Hardy won the award over Jed Lowrie. The A's shortstop had an OPS 50 points higher and only one fewer RBI, but Hardy out-homered him by 10. Given that "best offensive player" seems like a fairly objective question, the answer seemed to be that the voters value power and run production more than average and OPS. Imagine my surprise this year when Beltre was announced as the winner. One one hand, he batted .324 with an .879 OPS, far better than Donaldson's marks of .255 and .798. On the other hand, Donaldson hit 10 more homers and drove in 21 more runs. Surely he would be the Hardy to Beltre's proverbial Lowrie, right? Not so, as this year the pendulum swung the other way and the borderline call went against the A's yet again. As you can see, Beltre still had a tremendous season, and I might actually have picked him myself if I had a vote. But Donaldson had a different kind of tremendous season, and you really couldn't have gone wrong either way.

As it is, the best player at his own position is neither the best defender nor the best hitter at that particular position. That might sound logically impossible, but it's not. Donaldson continues to be one of the most underrated players in baseball, but A's fans are fine with that as long as he remains one of the best.