PHOENIX -- Here's the thing about Josh Donaldson: He looks like an athlete. Indeed, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane called him the best athlete on the team; considering Yoenis Cespedes is patrolling the outfield, that's praise of a high order.
Watch Donaldson at the plate -- one wrist band just below the right elbow, another on his left wrist, pants legs pulled down loosely over the tops of those white A's cleats, the sandy blonde hair spilling out from underneath the back of his batting helmet, his bat waving in hyperactive motion just above his shoulder as he readies for the pitch -- and he looks all fast-twitch baseball player up there, not like a squatty former catcher moved to third base out of some sense of desperation.
In the fourth inning of Saturday's Cactus League game against the Texas Rangers, Donaldson flared a hit down the right-field line. It was an easy double, but Donaldson glided into second base with surprising speed. He was a defensive back and wide receiver when he played high school football and he runs effortlessly. He may have been a former catcher, but he doesn't run like one.
That athleticism is one reason his transition from minor league catcher to full-time major league third baseman worked out so well. It comes into play in Oakland, where the third baseman has to run down pop-ups in the immense foul territory at the O.co Coliseum. It's one reason that, after some inconsistent years in the minors and initial struggles in the majors, everything came together for Donaldson in 2013, when he hit .301 with 24 home runs, 93 RBIs and finished a worthy fourth in the American League MVP balloting.
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Everyone is doing the "Can Josh Donaldson do it again?" story this spring.
"It’s been a little different, coming to spring training and being the guy everyone wants to talk to," he admitted. It's a role he understands, however, and is part of being the responsibility of the guy who is now viewed as the best player on the team.
He was apologetic about having to cut short a previous interview when he had to do some stretching work in the trainer's room before a recent game, thanking me for coming back a couple days later. As we talked in front of his locker, he politely turned off the clubhouse stereo nearby.
2013 WAR LEADERS
Leaders in Wins Above Replacement in 2013, per Baseball-Reference.com:
After last year's big season, he said it was important to take a break from baseball, physically and mentally. He went back home to Alabama, where he finished high school and played college baseball at Auburn. "I have a group of old friends I hang with back home. Outside of that, I don't stray too far," he said.
He started cranking back up with baseball activities at the end of November and started lifting about that time as well. He knows one MVP-caliber season is just that: one MVP-caliber season.
Donaldson's transformation really began at the end of 2012. He had started the season as Oakland's third baseman, but struggled early and was sent back to Triple-A in mid-April. He returned in May, but struggled some more. Through June 13 he was hitting .153 and was returned to Sacramento. But when Brandon Inge got injured, Donaldson got another call on Aug. 14. He hit .290 with eight home runs over the final 47 games, a key reason the A's surged to the AL West title.
"It was definitely one of those things where I felt better coming into the year than I had before," he said. "I think what was the biggest confidence booster about finishing strong was there was only one time throughout that stretch where I didn't have a hit within two games, so I knew I was on the right track as far as having a right approach at the plate."
That approach includes a good eye at the plate -- he ranked seventh in the American League with 76 walks -- and, at least in 2013, the ability to raise his game when runners were on base. He hit .252/.326/.444 when the bases were empty, but .364/.454/.572 with runners on. The heat maps below showcase his batting average in different zones in those situations.
"I feel like I'm better with guys on the base," Donaldson said. "If you're in the middle of the lineup somewhere, you're going to have guys on base, so I feel that allows me to have success.
"You narrow it down. When guys are on, you're just trying to get that guy in. As a pitcher, he's trying even harder to execute so the run doesn't score and sometimes when you're trying harder they're more apt to make mistakes."
Like 2013, when he started at least 23 times in five different spots in the batting order, expect Donaldson to move around the lineup. He has hit second, third and fourth in spring training so far. "I haven't really talked about it yet with [manager Bob] Melvin. They like to change the lineup around on any given day. As long as I'm in there, I don't mind."
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Donaldson had originally been drafted by the Chicago Cubs, the 48th overall pick in 2007 after hitting .349 with 11 home runs his junior season at Auburn. The A's were high on him at the time and disappointed when he didn't fall to the 59th pick. Donaldson mashed in rookie ball in 2007, but when he was hitting .217 while catching at Class A Peoria the following season, Beane was able to get Donaldson as part of trade that sent Rich Harden to the Cubs.
He mostly remained behind the plate through 2011, although he did mix in some time at third. Donaldson said the permanent move to third base was beneficial to his offensive game. "When you're catching, especially the starting catcher, your focus is more on the pitchers than yourself, so I didn't have the time to space out things and focus on myself like I can now. I can spend 30 or 40 minutes in the cage and not worry about anything else. I don't have to worry about who's throwing, the game plan, or anything like that."
Donaldson is 28 now, but while he may have a few years on some of his teammates, like most of them he still lacks the years in the majors to make huge money. The A's recently renewed his salary for $500,000 this season.
"I think you're going have guys in this locker room who are going to be $20 million ballplayers. They may not be making $20 million right now, but there's definitely potential for guys to make that money," he said. "There's a bunch of guys here with less than three years of service so we have guys still trying to make their mark. That's the great thing about baseball: You get a chance every time you step on the field to prove yourself. And if you prove yourself, you'll get paid."
Maybe that's what makes the A's better collectively than what they may appear on paper. They've won the past two division titles yet many view the Rangers as the favorite to win the AL West. They lost Bartolo Colon to the New York Mets as a free agent and starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin will miss the start of the season with injuries, but that focus on pitching ignores that the A's have become a team built around their offense. They ranked third in the AL in runs scored last year, and considering some of the defections and likely regression from the Red Sox, and the Tigers losing a couple key offensive players, the A's may have the best offense in the league.
"We know. If nobody else knows, we know we have the ability to put up runs," Donaldson said. "We don't have huge names, the Miggys or the Trouts or Pujols or those guys that have the numbers over a long tenure. But look at a guy like Brandon Moss, putting up 30 bombs; hitting in Oakland, that's a lot of home runs. That's a lot of home runs anywhere, but when you're playing in Oakland and doing that, you're doing something."
Maybe the A's don't have huge names. Maybe the average fan doesn't know Donaldson finished fourth in the MVP voting or that Moss hit 30 home runs. That's OK. The A's have been overlooked in the past. Maybe it's time to stop overlooking them.