Josh Donaldson: The Draft Versus Development

Josh Donaldson was a first round draft pick, and given that he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player just eight short months ago, this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. With the draft, and prospects, and international signings transitioning from niche interest to national news over the last decade, these young players who were once safely sheltered from the spotlight until their trajectories had them on the precipice of The Show have become lightning rods for controversial opinion the moment their name is called. “That 18 year old shortstop they took from Arkansas? Not great value. Not a big fan of his swing; too much hitch in his load. I’d have taken the 20 year old pitcher from Cal State there,” the talking heads on your television will say.

Josh Donaldson was a first round draft pick, but that hardly tells his story. Throughout the entirety of his MVP campaign he was battling Bryce Harper and Mike Trout for the “best player in baseball” crown, and while all three share the same pedigree as first round talents, the trio couldn’t have followed less similar paths to get where they are. Harper was viewed as a generational talent long before the Nationals selected him first overall as a 17 year old in Junior College, and the outfielder played a grand total of 164 minor league games before making his Washington debut as a 19-year old in 2012. Trout was selected as a high school senior out of New Jersey in 2009, and was considered a late first round talent at the time simply because of the climate in which he played and the limited opportunities for exposure. But in Harper-like fashion, he would play just 291 minor league games – over which he hit .338 – before debuting in Los Angeles as a 19 year old in late 2011. From 2010 through 2012, Trout ranked 53rd, 2nd, and 3rd on the Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 prospect rankings. Harper ranked only twice (because he was eligible only twice), placing 1st and 2nd in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

After going undrafted out of high school as a shortstop/pitcher, Donaldson began his college career with the University of Auburn as a third baseman. He shifted to catcher full-time during his sophomore season, and by his junior, draft-eligible year, he was easily the best player on the Tigers. Donaldson hit .349/.444/.591 with 30 extra base hits, 38 walks, and 17 stolen bases (all of which easily represented career bests) in 55 games, was drafted by the Cubs in the first round (48th overall), and received a sizable bonus of $652,600 USD.

Not once did he appear among the Top 101 prospects at Baseball Prospectus. The highest he would finish on an individual team list was fifth (with the Cubs in 2008), where he was considered a three-star prospect while ranking behind the likes of Geovany Soto, Josh Vitters, Donald Veal, and Jose Ceda – only one of whom has had a professional career worth noting. Then still a catcher, Donaldson was described as “offensive-oriented” with “solid hitting skills and average to slightly-above power”, while noting he was “well below-average” defensively and that “much of [his] future projection relies on his ability to stay behind the plate”.

Donaldson struggled with his transition to a full season league, with John Sickels of Minor League Ball describing him as looking “confused at the plate”, and further noting that “it looked like he was trying to hit a grand slam on every pitch and was excessively power conscious”. His production cratered, and in July of that year, Donaldson was shipped west to Oakland as the fourth named piece in a package for right hander Rich Harden. He swung the bat well in the two months immediately following the trade (.330/.391/.564), but in the subsequent season it looked as though the Oakland developmental staff had gone full Moneyball with him.

Reaching Double-A for the first time, Donaldson’s power had vanished as he hit just nine home runs, but he made up for it by walking an impressive 80 times over 124 games. Sickels had another chance to observe Donaldson as he played for Midland that season, describing a, “swing that looks different than when I saw him before; quick but flat, and most of his power is to the gaps not over the fences.” Sickels further noted that he was working the count well, and while that does sound like the Donaldson we know today, the level swing portion most certainly does not. The aggressiveness was gone, and he would fail to rank on the Athletics’ Top 15 list at Baseball Prospectus in either season.

He would spend much of the next two and a half years in prospect wilderness. Donaldson received his first of three shots at Triple-A in 2010, but as he ascended, the questions about whether he’d be able to hit enough to be a useful regular became increasingly pressing. Donaldson experienced his first major league action in April/May 2010, filling in at catcher for 14 games while Kurt Suzuki was on the disabled list. The production was poor – he slashed just .156/.206/.281 with 12 strikeouts in 34 plate appearances – and Donaldson was swiftly sent back down to Sacramento following Suzuki’s return. Around that 14 game stint he did hit 18 home runs over 86 games (disclaimer: in the Pacific Coast League), but his batting average plummeted to .238 and he struck out in nearly 23 percent of his plate appearances. A former college draft pick, then 23 years old and in his fourth minor league season, Josh Donaldson was rapidly approaching the ‘first round bust’ label.

The entirety of his 2011 campaign was spent in Triple-A, which almost certainly was a bitter pill to swallow for a player who got his first taste of the major leagues the year prior. He had evidently done enough at the minor league level in 2010 to warrant a 14th place ranking in the Athletics system leading up to season, and with another 503 modestly productive plate appearances in Triple-A under his belt, he improved his stock to 13th in the system when the 2012 prospect rankings were unveiled. Looking back, it was that 2012 season – his sixth year in affiliated ball – that would prove to be the most pivotal in Josh Donaldson’s baseball career.

Making the shift back to his original college position of third base, he began the season on the Athletics’ bench. Nevertheless, between Opening Day and June 13th, he found his way into the lineup just 28 times for 100 plate appearances, as he was up-and-down to Sacramento a couple of times as Oakland’s 25th man. During his limited stint in The Show there was little to see: a hollow .153 batting average to go along with one home run and one walk. What was there, however, was an opportunity, one he had never before been afforded. Not for playing time, but for a self-assessment. As he would later describe to Sports on Earth, it was really the first time he was able to look at his swing on video, and the dire need for adjustments became abundantly evident. It was in this moment that Josh Donaldson became who he is today; not on the baseball field – not immediately, but on the mental side of the game. The cerebral thinker; the apex predator of the plate’s inner-half.

Donaldson began his final journey through the minor leagues on June 23rd, 2012. He would hit .302/.370/.531 over 38 games on this assignment, before Brandon Inge suffered a shoulder injury that necessitated the Bringer of Rain’s climactic return. Donaldson would start 52 of Oakland’s remaining 53 games (including all five contests against Detroit in the ALDS), hit .290/.356/.489, and firmly cemented himself as the Athletics’ starting third baseman sixty-two months after being a first round draft pick out of a major college program. Over the next three full seasons Donaldson would place in the top ten of MVP voting all three times (including his 2015 win), and is showing no sign of ending that trend through the first half of 2016.

The John Farrell escapade was one of the most infuriating aspects of Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure, and when the former Blue Jays manager compared the “scouting” versus “player development” philosophies of Toronto and Boston at a Sabermetrics conference in August 2013, it got much of the fan base riled up, but they were in a lather for all of the wrong reasons. Farrell was rightly quoted as saying “… in the player-development vein, you’re going to look at things in three dimensions: mentally, physically, fundamentally to address and develop people, or develop an organization. I think as a scouting base, you go out and you evaluate the physical tools. And that’s kind of where it ends, or that’s the look at that time. That was my experience, that was my opinion.”

This player development emphasis is something that Mark Shapiro brought with him from Cleveland, and has been further expanded with the implementation of his High Performance Department. As Arden Zwelling wrote for Sportsnet in March, the goal of this program is to “integrate all aspects of a player’s performance under one umbrella — from strength and conditioning, to nutrition, to mental health — and to tailor a specific plan for each and every player in the organization in order to establish their goals and give them every resource possible to achieve them.” Sounds a lot like what Farrell preached. Zwelling elaborates further in his outstanding detailing of the program:

“The overarching framework of Mugford’s division is simple: Prepare, work, recover. Where it gets complicated is how those three factors filter into everything a player does, on the field and off. Every Blue Jay has his own unique set of needs, both physical and mental, and, with the help of data gathered over time, Mugford’s department will aim to tailor its development approach to those specifics. Not every pitcher will ramp up their arm at the same rate. Not every hitter will get the same number of at-bats during spring training. Not every athlete will work out the same way in the weight room or eat the same way in the dining hall. And certainly not every ballplayer will be expected to react uniformly to the psychological stresses of baseball.”

Josh Donaldson was a first round draft pick, but that’s little more than a meaningless factoid in comparison to the years and years of player development put in by the organizations he’s played for, his personal off-season training team, and most importantly, Donaldson himself. Between being selected in the first round and winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player award, he changed positions, was traded twice, completely overhauled his swing twice, never placed on a Top 100 list, and was more or less a bust as a prospect.

At this time of year, baseball’s public sector seems to turn its attention exclusively to scouting; what are his tools, how hard does he throw, what’s his ceiling, etc. – but pays no mind to the processes required to actually translate that potential into reality, or the fact that in the non-Bryce Harper division, the finished product seldom looks like what was originally forecast. Donaldson is obviously a rare exception, but the non-traditional path his career took serves to show the importance of patience, why scouting reports are little more than snapshots into a continuous evolution, and why placing judgments and grades on something as complex and convoluted as the MLB draft after such a short period of time is an exercise in futility. If you don’t like the draft class that Brian Parker produced this year, that’s fine; but pretending to have a legitimate idea of what the players will actually look like three, four, or five years down the line is disingenuous. Shapiro and his team of Ross Atkins, Gil Kim (Director of Player Development), and Angus Mugford (Director of High Performance) have established an unparalleled system within the professional baseball structure that is designed to maximize the chances of turning these raw and unrefined draft selections into real, tangible contributors at the major league level. Acquiring talent through the draft is important, but it’s merely the first step.

It’s just one player, but behind the scenes, the baseball world appears to have taken notice. The Blue Jays selected high school shortstop Bo Bichette in the second round, and he was quoted in the Tampa Bay Times as saying “The Blue Jays were the top team that I wanted to go to … they were the best as far as player development.” The dynamics around how Bichette worked his way into the Blue Jays lap will likely (purposefully) remain forever shrouded in mystery, but Toronto being lauded as a premier player development organization by outside parties is not something that would have happened even twelve months ago.

Josh Donaldson was a first round draft pick, but it was the quality of his development that made him the player he is today. Unfortunately, for the time being, no one hands out grades for the latter.

Lead Photo: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

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1 comment on “Josh Donaldson: The Draft Versus Development”


This piece rules. Thanks Kyle.

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