clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Athletics 2014 season review: Josh Donaldson has second straight superstar campaign

New, 29 comments
Donaldson gives thanks to the rain gods for his bountiful homer harvest.
Donaldson gives thanks to the rain gods for his bountiful homer harvest.
Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we had to do his season review at some point, so here it goes. We've reached No. 20, Josh Donaldson, our superstar player who was traded to the Blue Jays the night after Thanksgiving. Let's take one last chance to appreciate Donaldson's time here before moving on to the Brett Lawrie era.

Player profile

Name: Josh Donaldson, aka Bringer of Rain
Position: 3B
Stats: .255/.342/.456, 126 OPS+, 29 HR, 98 RBI, 31 2B, plus-20 DRS
WAR: 7.4 bWAR (2nd in AL), 6.4 fWAR (5th in AL)
How he got here: Acquired from Chicago Cubs (Single-A) during 2008
2014 Salary: $500,000
2015 Status: Traded to Toronto Blue Jays on Nov. 28
2015 Salary: TBD (1st-year arbitration), to be paid by Toronto

Season summary

Josh Donaldson came into the season looking to back up his breakout 2013 campaign, in which he had finished fourth in the AL MVP race. He mostly did just that, establishing himself as a legitimate two-way superstar at age 28. He was a potent middle-of-the-order bat for five out of six months, and an elite defender at third base who won the Fielding Bible Award but was snubbed for the Gold Glove. All told, he was once again one of the top five or so players in the American League, and Billy Beane chose to sell high on that peak value this winter by trading him for a four-player package.

Donaldson got off to a huge start to the 2014 season. He played in 59 of the team's first 60 games and batted .280/.369/.542 with 16 homers, helping the A's to the best record in the AL. He was the easy front-runner for the MVP, and he was already dominating the All-Star polls and on his way to starting in his first Midsummer Classic.

Then, on June 6, everything changed. Donaldson homered in his first at-bat against Baltimore's Wei-Yin Chen, and the game was going along normally. But then, in the third inning, Adam Jones hit a ground ball to Donaldson at third. With two outs, Donaldson opted not to throw to first base but rather tag out Manny Macahdo, who was running from second to third on the play. Donaldson applied what appeared to be a completely routine tag on the runner, but Machado spun awkwardly in a pointless and ill-advised attempt to avoid the utterly inevitable tag. Even the light force of Donaldson's totally normal contact was enough to send him sprawling like a basketball player trying to draw a foul. Machado didn't like ... something about the play, and he got heated and went all up in Donnie's grill.

Machado had recently had major knee surgery, and it's likely that he objected to being pushed to the ground, but if he wanted a gentle reception then I don't see why he tried to spin out of the basepath in a one-in-a-million attempt to outmaneuver a defender who already had him in checkmate. He could have just accepted that he'd been trapped and let Donaldson tag him, if he truly prioritized health over game proceedings. Or he could have stayed at second, since there wasn't a force on the play and the ball was hit in front of him (that's a basic baserunning fundamental). He'd brought the whole thing on himself, and the Internet pretty much agreed that he was being a dumb kid and needed to grow up. Everyone (deservedly) ripped on him for a while, and then the whole thing cooled down and folks mostly moved on. In the meantime, though, the rest of the series turned into a sideshow -- Machado (intentionally or not) whacked Derek Norris with his bat on a backswing, Wei-Yin Chen hit Donaldson on the hand with a pitch, Fernando Abad threw at Machado, and Machado threw his bat at third baseman Alberto Callaspo (intending to hit Abad).

Whether because Donaldson was shaken up by the whole thing and lost his focus, or his hand was sore from getting pegged by Chen, or he was putting extra pressure on himself with his impending All-Star debut, or he just went through a coincidentally timed slump, he was terrible for the rest of the first half. From June 7 through the middle of July (32 games), he hit only .159/.201/.254 with three home runs and six walks, and his defense seemed to suffer as well with an increase in careless errors.

Despite the slump, Donaldson was still a landslide selection to start at third in the All-Star Game after being egregiously snubbed from the roster the year before. He went 0-for-2 with a strikeout in the game, but he got robbed of a hit by NL first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (see Video Highlights section) and he did make a few plays in the field. He also got to participate in the Home Run Derby; he hit three dingers in the first round but lost a subsequent tiebreaker to teammate and eventual Derby champion Yoenis Cespedes.

Then, in the second half of the season, he was back to normal. In the first game back from the All-Star break, he hit a walk-off homer against the same Orioles who'd seemed to bring on his slump in the first place. Overall in the second half, he batted .280/.379/.465 with with nine homers for an OPS+ of 144. He faded a bit in September but he still came up with some big hits, including a walk-off homer against the Phillies. One way to look at his season is that for five months he was a guy with an .850-.900 OPS who played phenomenal defense, and then for one month he just kind of disappeared. Altogether, though, the lost June put a damper on his overall numbers and dropped him down to eighth in the MVP voting.

In the Wild Card game, he reached base three times in six trips (two singles and a walk) and scored a run, but his defense turned out to be the thing that fell short. He was unable to get to Christian Colon's weak infield single in the 12th fast enough to prevent Eric Hosmer from scoring the tying run, and he was unable to reach Salvador Perez's sharp grounder down the line later in the inning, which drove in the go-ahead run for the walk-off win. Both plays were nigh impossible, but this is how close Oakland was to not losing on Perez's hit:

Josh Donaldson dive Wild Card
Screenshot taken from video on MLB.com.

Truly a game of inches.

Donaldson wasn't perfect in 2014, but he had a fantastic season for the second year in a row. He was by far the best player on the team on paper, he was a mostly consistent threat in the middle of the lineup during the club's inconsistent season, and he played 158 games in a year in which virtually everyone else hit the DL. He showed a clutch side with a .908 OPS with runners in scoring position, he was great with a runner on third and fewer than two outs, he was good in Baseball-Reference's "high leverage" situations, and he swatted three walk-off home runs. Although he made 23 errors at the hot corner, his 20 Defensive Runs Saved ranked him as the best defensive third baseman in baseball and the fifth-best defender at any position; by UZR, he was second only to Chase Headley at his own position and finished ninth among all players.

No matter how you slice it, Donaldson had another great year and established himself as a superstar. His intense, never-give-up style, his juvenile charm, and his fiery demeanor also made him an easy player for home fans to fall in love with and root for. There's no denying that the A's lost a great player when they dealt him away last month, but the gamble is that the performance we just saw from him will be the best he ever plays and that we enjoyed his peak years here in Oakland.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: A- ... Hard to argue with the second-highest bWAR in the AL. I expected a superstar, and that's what I got, even though there was some marginal decline. He could have dropped the minus if he'd avoided that June slump, but the rest of his season was so good that the overall performance still stands on its own.

2014 season grade, overall: A+ ... Again, second-highest bWAR in the AL. There are very few ways to go up from there.

Video highlights

Let's start with the walk-offs. His first came off Detroit's Joe Nathan, with the A's trailing 1-0 after a brilliant pitching duel between Scott Kazmir and Anibal Sanchez.

Next, the one against Zach Britton and the Orioles to open the second half of the season and seemingly break him out of his prolonged slump.

And finally, the late-September blast against Miguel Gonzalez and the Phillies to end a 10-inning thriller and secure a crucial victory in a playoff race that eventually went down to the final day. Truly the Bringer of Rain.

This one isn't quite as exciting, but it's the best video of Donnie in the All-Star Game. He nearly had a hit off of former Athletic Pat Neshek, but for the effort of 2013 Gold Glove winner Paul Goldschmidt.

Tarp Catch 2 wasn't as good as the original from 2013 because he didn't fall all the way behind the tarp, but the sequel was still pretty impressive.

Donaldson made dozens of incredible defensive plays this year, but this one might have been my favorite. He shows incredible range to his right, and I love that he throws out the runner from foul territory.

There may have been more impressive double plays, but this one is pretty fun.

I could find 10 more amazing highlights from Donaldson's season, but these are the best of the best. Let's just leave it at that.

***

We watched Donaldson grow from the afterthought in a major trade (for Rich Harden), into a mostly busted catching prospect, into a third base project, into a surprise contributor, and finally into a legitimate superstar. It was a wild, unexpected journey, and his fingerprints are all over some of the best, most exciting seasons in Oakland A's lore. We loved him while he was here, we'll all remember him fondly, and we'll miss him now that he's gone. So long, Josh, and thanks for all the walk-offs.

Josh Donaldson Bringer of Rain