Donaldson won't rest on breakout 2013 season
A's third baseman says he still has much to prove after struggling in playoffs
PHOENIX -- Josh Donaldson was a revelation in 2013. His advanced offensive numbers were second at his particular position only to some guy named Miguel Cabrera. Between that performance at the plate and his defense and baserunning skills, Donaldson was an indispensable piece on an American League West-winning A's club known for mixing and matching in the lineup. He finished fourth in the AL MVP Award voting.
So, beyond the fawning words of reporters and the adulation of fans, what did this big-time breakout bring Donaldson here in 2014?
How about a league-minimum salary of $500,000?
Hey, that's not a bad haul, and every pre-arbitration player is subject to the monetary discretion of his employer. So do not weep for Donaldson (or Manny Machado, for that matter).
But Donaldson's price point speaks to the greater truth that pervades as the 28-year-old slugger enters his second full season.
"You have to prove yourself for 162," he said. "You have to prove yourself over time."
Donaldson is the first to admit he has more to prove. He was disappointed with his AL Division Series effort, when the Tigers trotted out Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez in succession, and he came out with a buck-43 batting average.
More to the point, Donaldson understands that one great season does not a career make.
Certainly, some people will be skeptical about a relatively late-bloomer's ability to repeat the sort of feat Donaldson achieved when he hit .301 with 24 homers, 93 RBIs and a weighted runs created mark 48 percent better than the league average. But it's not as if Donaldson's numbers were positively affected by a slew of unrepeatable inflaters. His was the story of a hard-working converted catcher who seized a long-awaited opportunity, created an early season comfort level with a strong start and then didn't let go.
"Based on what he had accomplished at the end of '12, he came into '13 knowing third base was his position," manager Bob Melvin said. "He's a very gritty player, he comes up big in clutch situations and there's a lot of tenacity to his game. Couple that with an opportunity at a position he was that much more comfortable with, and you see the results."
It's not that Donaldson came out of nowhere. He was a well-regarded bat out of Auburn when the Cubs plucked him in the second round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. And as Donaldson's Minor League career progressed, with the Cubs giving up on him quickly and shipping him to Oakland as part of the 2008 Rich Harden trade, you had to look past the iffy parts of his profile to see the power and plate discipline lurking within.
Only in hindsight is it clear that Donaldson was in a better position to tap into his offensive potential by making the permanent shift to the infield, a place he had frequented in his amateur career.
"It was more difficult for me to turn myself into a catcher than it was to turn myself back into an infielder," he said. "Moving from catcher to third base, I'm going to be in the lineup more, so I'm able to ride those good feelings longer. When you're catching, you're not able to play every day. It's more demanding on your body. At third base, I still get dinged up, but not near the extent of when you're catching."
The move came only out of necessity. Two springs ago, Donaldson was struggling to make the A's as Kurt Suzuki's backup behind the dish, and a knee injury to Scott Sizemore prompted a need at the hot corner. That initial opportunity didn't go so well, as Donaldson wound up demoted to Triple-A Sacramento for a significant stretch of the season. But when he returned to the bigs that August, he was a fundamentally more polished player on both sides of the ball, and his output down the stretch helped key the A's rousing rise to the top of the West standings.
What's most interesting -- and encouraging -- about Donaldson's All-Star-caliber acclimation to everyday duties at the Major League level is that telling numbers like walk (11.4 percent) and strikeout rate (16.9) were actually slight improvements upon his Triple-A totals. So Donaldson took an area of strength -- the ability to read the zone -- and applied it to the game's highest level, and that selectivity allowed him to pounce on pitches he could do damage with.
"Early on, when I first got called up [in 2012], I was making an emphasis to try to stay there, and my natural instinct is to swing," he said. "At the end of the season, I started walking more and having success. So going into last year, I was more comfortable with myself at the big league level and didn't feel like I had to impress to stay there. I knew if I did my job, I'd have a job. So I think my more natural approach at the plate came out."
It's only natural that people will want to see Donaldson repeat his 2013 performance before they're ready to cement him as one of the best third basemen in the game. That minimum salary is a reminder that one strong season does not necessarily win you a career's worth of riches.
But Donaldson perfectly represents an A's club loaded with players who have exceeded expectations and become key pieces on a deep and multifaceted contender.
"What we have here is a good bunch of guys who have been undervalued for most of their career and have found success recently," he said. "Guys who are starting to be viewed in a different light."
Donaldson is viewed in a much different light as he enters 2014. And he has plans to prove he's worthy of retaining that glow.