The Rise of Josh Donaldson
Every year in fantasy baseball there are players who go universally undrafted and begin the year as freely available, only to finish the season 100% owned in all leagues. It is impossible to count on picking one of these players up each year, but being fortunate enough to snag one of these out-of-nowhere breakouts can go a long way towards building a championship team. In 2013, one of those players was Oakland A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson. Back in May of last year I wrote that I was “all in on Josh Donaldson”. Donaldson ended the 2013 season with the following stats:
24 HR, 93 RBI, 89 R, 5 SB
Josh Donaldson remained incredibly consistent throughout the season as he maintained his walk and strikeout rates, his isolated power as well as his batting average from start to finish. His .301 batting average was aided by a .333 average on balls in play, but that number is slightly propped up by a 20.6% line drive rate as well as a 1.23 GB/FB ratio. We can expect Donaldson’s average to dip below .300, but he should still provide plenty of batting average value. With only a 16.5% strikeout rate in 2013, Donaldson consistently put the ball in play and his batting average should stay in the .280-.300 department if he can maintain a similar walk to strikeout ratio.
Donaldson also looks to have had some slight luck in the home run department, as his 14.2% HR/FB rate likely will regress next year. ESPN’s Home Run Tracker has Donaldson tied with Paul Goldschmidt for #4 on the list of “Just Enough” home runs with 13, behind Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Evan Longoria. With that being said, Donaldson does not show up on the “Lucky Homers” list. His .199 ISO last season is even more impressive in this era of eroding power and even with some regression in his HR/FB, Donaldson looks like a legitimate 20-HR threat.
When comparing Josh Donaldson to other third basemen for 2014, things get murky once you get beyond Miguel Cabrera, David Wright and Adrian Beltre. Evan Longoria lost his ability to steal a base, and without that skill his .269 batting average from 2013 starts to look a lot worse. Along with Donaldson, Matt Carpenter was one of the breakout players of 2013. His skill set, however, is tied entirely to his batting average and the St. Louis Cardinals lineup knocking him in. The breakout third baseman from 2012 was Chase Headley and he fell flat on his face in an attempt to duplicate his career year in 2013. Similarly, Brett Lawrie has failed to do anything of note after an impressive debut in 2011.
The third base position is littered right now with players who have walked the fine line between fantasy starter and free agent fodder, which makes identifying targets you can trust all the more important. While Josh Donaldson has just one full season under his belt, it’s hard to argue with the results. Throughout the minors Donaldson consistently showed an aptitude for taking a free pass, with frequent double-digit walk rates. He has also shown in the past that his power is for real, most recently with a .238 ISO in 348 triple-A plate appearances in 2012. Donaldson was inconsistent overall in the minors, as he went through an adjustment period after each promotion, which led to little fanfare when he arrived in Oakland. After a cup of coffee in 2010 and 294 plate appearances in 2012, Donaldson now looks to have adjusted to major league pitching. While there will likely be future adjustments as the league better understands his strengths and weaknesses, Josh Donaldson appears to be a target you can trust at 3B in 2014.