SweetSpot: Josh Donaldson

This week, I started a '10 questions' exercise by asking where Robinson Cano's power went, what's wrong with Justin Verlander and then whether or not Freddie Freeman is a .300 hitter.

Question No. 4: Is Josh Donaldson that good on D?

Before going 3-for-6 over his past two games, Oakland A's third baseman Josh Donaldson had been in a 3-for-45 slump. He's now hitting .254/.338/.484, a severe decline from the .280/.373/.552 triple-slash line he held on June 6.

Nonetheless, Donaldson still ranks first in the American League in Baseball-Reference wins above replacement (bWAR) at 4.6 -- ahead of Mike Trout's 4.4. He's third among AL position players in FanGraphs WAR (fWAR), albeit with a lesser total of 3.4.

So why does a guy who is hitting .254 and leading AL third basemen with 15 errors rank as the best player in the league, or one of the best?

We'll scoot past his offense quickly. Even with the recent slump, he's tied for 15th in the AL in weighted on-base average (wOBA). In weighted runs created (wRC+), which makes a home-park adjustment, he's 11th. So he's still been one of the most productive hitters in the league, and he's missed just one game.

But what helps separate him is his defense. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved, which calculates Donaldson at 17 runs above average -- that's the second-highest total in the majors at any position (behind Jason Heyward). FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which has Donaldson at plus-10.5 runs, the third-highest total of any player (behind Alex Gordon and Heyward; the two systems agree on the top three guys, just in a different order).

So even with all the errors, Donaldson rates as a terrific defender. He does pass the eye test. As I've written before, he's remarkably athletic for a player originally groomed in the minors as a catcher. Just to give a taste: Here's a great play, here's another one, here's a third one that led to a double play and here he is making a bare-handed play on a bunt.

Here's what got me when I was checking his stats: He's making 3.74 plays per game (assists plus putouts). This is the old stat Bill James called Range Factor. I realized that's a lot of plays per game. Manny Machado, for example, had a Range Factor of 3.05 last season and 3.12 in 2014, and he's a pretty awesome third baseman. Yes, Range Factor can be influenced by how many left-handers are on your staff, but that's still a lot of plays Donaldson is making. (The A's are first in the majors in innings pitched by left-handers.)

Baseball-Reference lists the yearly leaders in Range Factor per nine innings here. In the past 30 years, the only third baseman to crack 3.5 was Tim Wallach of the Montreal Expos in 1985 at 3.54. The leaders are usually around 3.0. The last third baseman to top Donaldson's 3.74 was Buddy Bell in 1982 at 3.86. That Texas Rangers staff had three lefties in the rotation -- Frank Tanana, Rick Honeycutt and Jon Matlack (part time) -- and averaged just 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings. The A's average 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings. The A's aren't an extreme ground ball staff -- they're 11th in the majors in ground ball percentage at 47.8 percent, less than one percent above the MLB average.

Overall, Donaldson's current Range Factor would be the eighth highest ever for a third baseman (Clete Boyer has three of the top seven).

Bottom line: Yes, Donaldson is that good on defense.
A glance through Sunday's results and some quick thoughts ... at least one for every team!
  • A's 11, Orioles 1: I wrote about Manny Machado's embarrassing episode here. How much of this is frustration by Machado? While he has had four two-hit games since May 31, his season line is a mediocre .235/.291/.346. Last June 30, he was hitting .321/.350/.489 with 35 doubles (remember when he was on a record pace for doubles in a season?). Since then he's hit .238/.278/.360 with 16 doubles in 107 games. Pitchers have been able to tie him up inside (.204 on inside pitches) and get him with primarily offspeed stuff outside (.236). For the first time, Machado is learning that baseball is hard. He needs to make those adjustments at the plate. ... The fielding metrics love Josh Donaldson's fielding and he passes the eye test with great plays like this one. If I'm voting today, he's my AL MVP.
  • Mariners 5, Rays 0: Felix Hernandez had one of the best games of his career on Sunday, with a career-high 15 K's in just seven innings. Remember when we were all worried about that no-strikeout game a few weeks ago? Since then he's 5-0 in six starts (he didn't get the win on Sunday since Seattle didn't score until a two-out, five-run rally in the ninth) with a 1.99 ERA. Jeff Sullivan suggests one reason for his success is Mike Zunino's ability to frame those pitches low in the strike zone. ... I love when managers do this: Ten days ago Endy Chavez wasn't good enough to be on the team and now Lloyd McClendon is batting him first or second. ... David Price, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer are all underperforming their FIP. I don't think that gives any solace to Rays fans.
  • Angels 4, White Sox 2: Interesting move by Mike Scioscia to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Adam Dunn in the ninth to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But the batter was backup catcher Adrian Nieto, who had entered earlier for Tyler Flowers, so the White Sox had to let him hit. ... Any doubt that the AL West is the best division in baseball right now? ... Robin Ventura had used Nieto to run for Flowers in the eighth after a leadoff walk. That didn't really make sense since the score was 4-0 at the time. ... Tough sweep for the White Sox since Sunday's loss came on the heels of leading 5-0 in the eighth on Saturday with Chris Sale pitching.
  • Astros 14, Twins 5: With George Springer, Jose Altuve and now Jon Singleton, the Astros have been interesting to watch for the first time in years. They're 16-9 since May 13 and have averaged 4.7 runs per game. ... How about Springer for the All-Star Game? Hitting .251/.346/.497 with 12 home runs and that's come after a slow start. With just one steal, hasn't flashed the stolen base part of that 30/30 potential, however. ... Don't exactly understand the Kendrys Morales signing for the Twins. The Twins are 29-32 and while that puts them in the wild-card race, it also means they're not that good. Morales isn't really a difference-maker. Wonder if he becomes trade bait in July if the Twins fall out if it.
  • Red Sox 5, Tigers 3: If anyone can stop a Red Sox losing streak, it's Joba Chamberlain. ... Big Papi doesn't miss 83-mph hanging sliders. ... I have mixed opinions on the Tigers right now. They're 33-26, but have outscored opponents by just nine runs. I wonder what Justin Verlander is right now and the late-inning relief has been shaky, although to be fair Joba had done a decent job before Sunday's ninth-inning blow-up. The offense looks mediocre beyond the awesome 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It still seems like they should run away with the AL Central, but maybe we'll get a race like the past two seasons.
  • Indians 3, Rangers 2: The Indians are fifth in the AL in runs and while Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall have been great, I think there's still more upside from this group, especially from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. ... This is one team that could really use David Price. He'd look pretty nice alongside Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, but not sure the Indians have the prospects to get a deal done (they're not trading Francisco Lindor). ... Just not going to be the Rangers' year. Now Mitch Moreland, not that he was hitting great, is out for maybe the rest of the season after he had ankle surgery, and second baseman Rougned Odor had to leave Sunday's game with a sprained shoulder.
  • Royals 2, Yankees 1: The other day, I heard Yankees announcer John Sterling say the Yankees can only play better the rest of the season. Is that really true, however? This looks like a classic .500 team to me. ... Gotta love Ned Yost. He's hitting the players with the two highest OBPs on the team (Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain) fifth and seventh for the most part.
  • Cardinals 5, Blue Jays 0: Impressive back-to-back shutouts for the Cards in Toronto. ... Amazingly, the Cards have now homered in back-to-back games for the first time since May 7-9, snapping a 26-game stretch without homering in consecutive games. ... That lack of power remains one of the most important issues in the National League moving forward. ... You do wonder how the Blue Jays' rotation will hold up. Mark Buehrle is due to slide (he lost Saturday) and Sunday starter Drew Hutchison has been inconsistent and is coming off Tommy John surgery so you wonder about fatigue later in the season with him.
  • Giants 6, Mets 4: Hard to find a flaw right now with the Giants. Tim Lincecum wasn't great on Sunday -- allowing three runs in six innings -- but when he's the weakest link on the club that's how you can have the best record in baseball. ... Brandon Crawford remains an unsung member of the team, very good at shortstop and contributes with the bat. ... As bad as the Mets lineup looked on Sunday, the Mets are averaging 4.0 runs per game, right at the NL average. I hear the lineup being criticized a lot as being awful, but it's not, it's actually mediocre.
  • Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: On Sunday, the most expensive payroll in the majors rolled out a lineup that had Chone Figgins leading off, Scott Van Slyke batting fifth and playing center field, somebody named Jamie Romak batting sixth and playing right field, somebody named Miguel Rojas batting seventh and weak-hitting Drew Butera hitting eighth. And they won! ... Charlie Blackmon since May 1: .246/.289/.405. ... The Rockies are 2-11 their past 13 and their next 27 games are all against teams currently with a winning record. They may be 10 games under .500 by the end of that stretch. It was fun for awhile.
  • Diamondbacks 6, Braves 5: I think it's too late, but the D-backs are 20-15 since April 30. ... Chase Anderson is 5-0 in five starts. Is he this good? Probably not. His FIP is 4.54 but his ERA is 3.14. He had a 5.73 ERA last year at Triple-A Reno. He doesn't throw hard (average fastball is 90 mph) but has thrown strikes so far and hasn't hurt himself. ... Not sure how much longer the Braves can ride the Aaron Harang bandwagon (six walks on Monday). ... Tommy La Stella has hit .400 in nine games although with no extra-base hits. That's what he is, a guy who can hit for average and put the ball in play. He won't be a huge offensive contributor since it will be an empty average, but he should still be an upgrade over what they got from Dan Uggla the past year-plus (including defensively).
  • Brewers 1, Pirates 0: Yovani Gallardo had his best start of the season. I think he's a huge key to the Brewers winning the NL Central. ... If I'm filling out my All-Star ballot today, Jonathan Lucroy gets my vote as starting catcher. ... Is this what Starling Marte is, a .230 hitter? With 68 strikeouts and just 16 walks, he clearly has holes in his swing and areas he can be pitched to.
  • Nationals 6, Padres 0: You rarely see a pitcher dominate with just his fastball, but that's essentially what Jordan Zimmermann did, with nine of his 12 K's coming on his fastball. ... Zimmermann has lowered his ERA from 4.07 to 3.17 with two scoreless starts. Is he back to the guy who dominated in the first half of last year? We'll see, but those two starts came against the Phillies and Padres. ... The Nationals have the best ERA in the majors since May 1 at 2.87. ... This upcoming road trip to St. Louis and San Francisco will be an interesting test for the Nationals to make a statement that they're more than just a .500-ish team. ... Chase Headley will always have that second half of 2012. Will he go down as the least likely season RBI leader ever?
  • Marlins 4, Cubs 3: The Marlins continue to hang in there, although let's see if Henderson Alvarez's injury is serious (he left in the sixth with a hip strain after his scoreless streak ended at 26 innings). ... Next 16 games are against teams with losing records, so an important stretch to play well. ... Lineup is still more than just Giancarlo Stanton -- seven of the eight regulars have an OPS+ better than league average. ... In general, I still like this club and expect them to hang around in the NL East. ... Have the Cubs found a starter in Jake Arrieta? In 16 starts with them, he has a 3.18 ERA. Maybe leaving Camden Yards helped his confidence or maybe at 28 he's finally figuring a few things out. He's also being limited to 5-6 innings per outing. There are some gray areas in the numbers but he does have a 2.58 FIP this year to go with his 2.50 ERA, primarily because he's allowed just one home run. I'm still a little skeptical, as home runs have always been a big problem for him.
  • Reds 4, Phillies 1: Speaking of bad lineups, maybe it's time Bryan Price demotes Brandon Phillips and his .305 OBP out of the third spot? Not that Price has a lot of good options. He's hit Todd Frazier, the team's best hitter this season, in the second spot quite a bit recently, but he was hitting sixth on Sunday. So Price hit his hottest hitter sixth in order to lead off his lineup with three guys with OBPs of .288, .267 and .305. ... As for the Phillies, don't even get me going on Ben Revere, who drew a walk leading off a game for the first time in his career. He's hitting .282 ... with a robust .298 OBP. It's National League baseball, 2014 style!
Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado is a month shy of his 22nd birthday, one of the bright young talents in the game.

But age is no excuse for his bush league move in Sunday's 11-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics in which he clearly, with intention and deliberate action, attempted to throw his bat at Oakland pitcher Fernando Abad. The bat ended up flying down the third-base line instead of toward the pitcher's mound, though Machado claimed the bat slipped out of his hands. No one is buying that piece of fiction: Machado should be suspended for at least five games.

Here's the longer version of the play as it unfolded. Decide for yourself, but note the lateness of the swing and when the bat "slipped." Even Orioles play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne accused Machado of deliberately releasing the bat.

Machado's bat throwing was the culmination of a series of events that began Friday night, when Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson tagged out Machado on a ground ball with two outs in the third inning, leading to a benches-clearing incident when Machado took exception to the play. Normally, the third baseman throws to first on that play, and the tag appeared to catch Machado off-balance and he flung his helmet to the ground as he fell and had words with Donaldson. But Donaldson didn't do anything improper; he obviously has the right to tag Machado.

That fracas cleared pretty quickly, but later in the game, Wei-Yin Chen threw high a couple times to Donaldson and hit him once. That set the stage for Sunday.

Earlier in the game, Machado hit A's catcher Derek Norris with a backswing. Then in the sixth inning, Machado whiffed on a pitch with another exaggerated follow-through that hit Norris on the top of his helmet and knocked him from the game.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Gail BurtonMachado caused another stir Sunday when he threw his bat -- and it appeared intentional.
From my view, the A's now had two reasons to be upset at Machado: He overreacted during Friday's play in which Donaldson did nothing wrong, leading to Donaldson nearly getting a pitch in his face; Machado's swing that knocked Norris from the game may not have been intentional but it's interesting that Machado didn't even glance back at Norris as the catcher attempted to shake off the blow. Factor in that it was the second time it happened in the game, and you can draw your own conclusions about Machado's actions.

So with a 10-0 lead in the eighth inning, Abad threw a fastball near Machado's knees, a pitch that was easy to jump away from. On the next pitch, Machado let the bat fly. Can you defend Abad's pitch? We get into the complicated area of retribution here. It's easy to argue, "Let it go. You're up 10-0. Finish off the game and go home." On the other hand, Machado had been acting like a punk.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter supported his third baseman after Friday's dust-up, saying, "Manny cares. Until you've walked a mile in a man's shoes you don't really know what goes on. It's a pretty easy call for me what side of the fence I'm on."

Look, I can't pretend to be in anybody's shoes here, but I'm trying to figure what Donaldson did on Friday that would deserve Chen throwing at him. This is where Showalter -- as a leader of men and the manager of the team -- should have said, "This is where it ends. Move on."

Showalter had a little more difficulty defending his young third baseman on Sunday.

"If you look at it realistically, it was two competitive guys. Both were probably a little right and a little wrong," he said in reference to Friday's incident. "Two days later, somebody decided to do something else. I'll manage my club accordingly and they'll live with their decisions."

Look, managers these days aren't going to publicly reprimand their player. But this wasn't a 50-50 situation; this was Machado throwing his bat and trying to injure a pitcher, after he may have tried to injure a catcher. No, this isn't as bad as Juan Marichal attacking Johnny Roseboro with his bat or Bert Campaneris throwing his bat at Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow in the 1972 American League Championship Series. I would, however, suggest it's worse than the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza incident in the World Series. To a certain extent, the game polices itself, but I'm going to predict that Joe Torre in the league office is going to find good reason to suspend Machado.

After the game, A's catcher John Jaso brought up the proverbial "play the game the right way" stuff you hear from players after incidents like this, and in this case I actually agree with him. This isn't the same thing as Yasiel Puig flipping his bat or David Ortiz watching a home run, in which the "play the game the right way" stuff is nonsense. There's a big difference between playing the game with joy and playing the game with the intent to injure.

I don't agree, as Jaso said, that a player like Machado who acts "like he's got 10 years in the big leagues" has "to be brought down a little bit." That leads to incidents where players can and do get hurt. But we can all agree that Machado failed to play the game the right way on Sunday and must pay a severe penalty.

Norris called Machado's actions "a disgrace to baseball." Those are strong words, but I have to agree.

Defensive Player of the Month: May

June, 3, 2014
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Getty ImagesYoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson excelled on defense for the Athletics in May.

The Oakland Athletics had the best ERA in the American League in May, and one reason for that was that they had the outfielder with the most Defensive Runs Saved and the infielder with the most Defensive Runs Saved of anyone all month.

Those two players -- Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson -- finished one-two in our voting for Defensive Player of the Month.

The award is given each month after balloting by ESPN.com writers, members of ESPN Stats & Information and video scouts for Baseball Info Solutions (BIS), which tracks defensive data. Cespedes got five first-place votes and finished with 31 points (we vote with a 5-3-1 system for first through third place), one more first-place and two more points than Donaldson. Troy Tulowitzki won the award for April.

Cespedes turned a good month into a great month with a flourish in the final game of May, when he threw two runners out at the plate, propelling him to a tie for the Runs Saved lead with Mets outfielder Juan Lagares, with 10 apiece.

Even without that final game, this was one of Cespedes’ best defensive months in his career. Baseball Info Solutions charted him with eight “Good Fielding Plays” (think Web Gem nominees) and only one Defensive Misplay & Error.

In his first two seasons, Cespedes had 30 Good Plays and 41 Misplays. But May pushed his totals for 2014 to 11 and 6. After catching 28 of 35 balls hit into his zone (the areas in which most left fielders turn batted balls into outs) in April, Cespedes snagged 30 of 32 in May, and had 10 “Out of Zone” catches (up from seven in April). He’s also already matched his 2013 total for “baserunner kills” (the term for throwing out a runner without needing a cutoff man) with five.

His infield teammate, Donaldson, already has a pretty stellar rep for his defensive play and solidified that with eight defensive runs saved at the hot corner last month. His 12 Defensive Runs Saved this season lead major league third basemen and already match his total from 2013, when he finished fourth-best in the majors at third base.

Donaldson tied Jean Segura for the lead in Good Fielding Plays with 18 and had only five misplays and errors. He’s greatly improved his ratio of good plays to misplays, from 63 and 53 in 2013 to 28 and 14 in 2014. Like Cespedes, Donaldson improved on his Revised Zone Rating, going from turning 56 of 73 balls hit into his zone into outs in April to 57 of 67 in May.

Donaldson’s presence makes the Athletics' left side of the infield very formidable. The Athletics turned 81 percent of ground balls hit to the left of the second-base bag into outs in May, easily the highest rate of any team (the Pirates finished second at 78 percent).

A few weeks ago, when we asked Eduardo Perez for a list of defenders who had impressed him in 2014, he put Donaldson at the top of his list. “I like him a lot,” Perez said. “He expects every ball to be hit to him, and he’s really good from side to side."

Donaldson excels most at handling balls hit closest to the third-base line, whether it's due to his positioning or quickness. Our internal batted-ball tracker had the Athletics giving up hits on only 19 percent of ground balls hit closest to the third-base line in May, well below the average of 35 percent.

Donaldson didn’t just have a great defensive May. He had a great offensive one as well, with eight home runs, a .417 on-base percentage and a .990 OPS. Combine his defense and his offensive and you get a Wins Above Replacement total of 2.6, which even outpaced homer-slugging Edwin Encarnacion for best in the AL for the month.

Mark Simon helps oversee the ESPN Stats & Information blog and regularly tweets defensive stats on Twitter at @msimonespn
Over their past 10 games, the Oakland A's have won nine and outscored their opponents by a staggering 71-18. They pitched three shutouts, scored double-digit runs three times and hit 18 home runs while giving up eight. They are 28-16 with a run differential of plus-95 and lead the American League in most runs scored per game and fewest runs allowed per game. They just destroyed the Indians in Cleveland over the weekend by a combined tally of 30-6. Josh Donaldson leads the AL in WAR. Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez all rank in the top 10 in the AL in ERA. Brandon Moss is tied for third in the majors in RBIs. The A's lead the AL in walks and on-base percentage. Their catchers are hitting a combined .318/.403/.484.

And somehow, the A's are only No. 2 in this week's Power Rankings.

OK, they don't have the best record -- that belongs to the Tigers, the No. 1 team in the Power Rankings, at 27-12 -- but no team has dominated like the A's. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only two teams have a bigger run differential through 44 games than the A's: the 2010 Rays (plus-102) and the 1998 Yankees (plus-101).

Does this run differential early on mean anything? After all, you could argue that a few blowout wins can skew the numbers. Well, two points there:

1. Good teams have more blowout wins. Yes, winning close games is important, but mediocre teams can have good records in one-run games.

2. Oakland has a 40-run spread over Detroit, the team with the second-largest run differential.

But here's a more interesting factoid. I checked the past 10 seasons to see which team had the biggest run differential in the majors after 44 games. Nine of those 10 teams won at least 92 games and made the playoffs, the lone exception being the 2011 Indians, who were 29-15 with a plus-66 differential after 44 games but finished 80-82.

Are the A's the 2011 Indians? No. This team has a playoff pedigree with division titles the past two seasons, while that Cleveland team had come out of nowhere. That team had a rotation that was largely smoke and mirrors early on, and the offense couldn't sustain its hot start. These A's don't look just like a possible playoff team but a possible powerhouse, one that is capable of winning 100 games in a division that features the Astros, Mariners and beat-up Rangers.

SportsNation

How many games will the A's win?

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    43%
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    43%
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    11%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,668)

How can that happen? A few reasons:

1. Josh Donaldson wins the AL MVP Award.

Donaldson is hitting .280/.362/.520 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs and leads Mike Trout in WAR, 3.5 to 2.8. It's time to acknowledge that 2013 wasn't a fluke, that Donaldson plays a terrific third base and that he is one of the best all-around players in the game. He has a wingman this year, however, in Moss, who continues to improve. Moss has cut his strikeout rate from 27.7 percent to 18.3 percent, helping him hit for a .301 average to go with his power. He's also been hitting left-handers, meaning manager Bob Melvin is starting to erase the "platoon player" tag next to Moss' name.

2. The rotation holds up.

This is perhaps the biggest question. Gray, Kazmir and Chavez have been great, but they also combined for just 279 1/3 innings in the majors last year. Can they hold up late in the season as they get past 150 or 175 innings? Oakland's rotation depth was thinned out by the season-ending injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, but they just added Drew Pomeranz, another Billy Beane reclamation project of sorts. The fifth overall pick in 2010, Pomeranz was traded by Cleveland to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, and the A's got him in December for Brett Anderson. After starting in the bullpen, Pomeranz has made two starts, going five innings both times without allowing a run. He's a fastball/curveball guy, relying on good movement and low 90s velocity, essentially ditching an ineffective changeup he used with the Rockies. It's a simpler approach, but he's locating the fastball and it's working.

3. Yoenis Cespedes is a threat again.

A more disciplined approach at the plate -- more walks, fewer strikeouts -- has helped Cespedes improve his triple-slash numbers. Maybe he's sacrificing some home runs, but he's already hit 13 doubles (hit 21 all of last season) and this Cespedes is a more valuable middle-of-the-order hitter.

4. They haven't gotten much from Josh Reddick or second base.

Reddick had a two-homer, six-RBI game Friday and two more hits Sunday. He's still hitting just .237 with a .299 OBP and four home runs, but he’s showing signs of breaking out. It could be that his 32-homer season in 2012 was a fluke. Still, the potential is there. The other area that could improve is second base, where the A's are hitting a collective .212/.281/.258. What this means is possible regression from the likes of Derek Norris (hitting .354) or even Moss may be balanced out by better results from right field and second. Really, though, outside of Norris, nobody on the offense is that much over his head.

5. The bullpen is fine.

The A's are 20-5 when leading after seven innings, which isn't anything special. The major league average is a .900 winning percentage, so an average team would be 22-3 or 23-2 in 25 decisions when leading after seven. But the A's are fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA and first in runs per nine innings. Their weaknesses have been inherited runners (33 percent have scored, worse than the MLB average of 28 percent) and Jim Johnson. But if Sean Doolittle ends up with the closer job -- getting the lone save last week after Johnson gave up two hits -- he'll be fine: He hasn't walked a batter since August.

Will the A's win 100? FanGraphs projects them to win 92 -- in part because its projections view the Angels, Mariners and Rangers as .500 or better teams, meaning the AL West won't be a cakewalk. Maybe 100 is optimistic in a year where parity may reign supreme, but the A's look like a 92-win lock to me -- and I'd say 95 wins is very realistic. And that will be enough to print their postseason ticket.


Eric and I take your questions on the Braves, Josh Donaldson's MVP chances, Robinson Cano, Adam Jones, Matt Cain and Chris Owings.


I hope the women and children in Texas didn’t witness the sweep the A's put on the Rangers because I think the A’s just committed three counts of felony sports-slaughter. After beating Yu Darvish 4-0 on Monday and the red-hot Martin Perez 9-3 on Tuesday, they bashed Robbie Ross in a 12-1 victory on Wednesday. The A’s close out April with an 18-10 record, including 12-4 on the road, and while they don’t have baseball’s best record, they are baseball’s best team after one month.

Here are 10 reasons they were the best in April … and should continue to roll along:

1. Run differential: The Milwaukee Brewers (20-8) and Atlanta Braves (17-9) have better win-loss records, but the A’s have a huge edge in run differential: plus-59 compared to plus-19 for the Brewers and plus-16 for the Braves. Sure, you don’t want to overemphasize run differential in April since one or two blowout wins or losses can skew the totals, but plus-59 is total domination and a better indicator of team strength than going 20-8 because you went 6-2 in one-run games and 4-1 in extra innings. Sorry, Brewers fans.

2. This lineup is deep: The Chicago White Sox, riding the big bat of Jose Abreu and some other improbable hot starts (Tyler Flowers hitting .354, Dayan Viciedo .348, Alexei Ramirez .351) have scored a few more runs, and the Los Angeles Angels have scored one more run in one less game played, but no team matches the depth of the Oakland lineup from one through nine. Coco Crisp (.393 OBP) and Jed Lowrie (.423) set the table at the top with Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes anchoring the middle of the order. They have two catchers who can hit in Derek Norris and John Jaso, Craig Gentry is one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball and Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto are versatile switch-hitters off the bench. In fact, Crisp and Lowrie also switch-hit, making it difficult to match up with the A’s in the late innings. That kind of flexibility allowed the A’s to bat with the platoon advantage 70 percent of the time last season, the second highest in the majors.

[+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsJesse Chavez is just the A's latest mystery man propelling them to the top.
3. Jesse Chavez is no fluke: When Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin (who just announced he’d undergo Tommy John surgery as well) both went down in spring training, it opened up a rotation slot for Chavez. He’s 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA in six starts and was silly good in Wednesday’s win, allowing one hit and one walk in seven innings. He’s a four-pitch guy, or five pitches if you want to include both his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball, adding a cutter that he throws a lot, a changeup and a curveball.

What makes Chavez so tough is that he uses the different pitches to basically pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone. Both fastballs tend to be up in the zone, primarily used inside to both righties and lefties; he uses his cutter on the outside part of the plate (meaning he has the ability to spot it to both sides, depending on whether it’s a lefty or righty batting; the changeup, mostly thrown to left-handed batters, is low and away; the curveball usually drops in at the knees across the plate.

Where did he come from? The journeyman righty spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Braves, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays before the A’s purchased him from Toronto in August of 2012. He had a 3.92 ERA in relief last season with Oakland. When he first reached the majors, Chavez was primarily a fastball/slider guy. He’s since dumped the slider and added the cutter while throwing his four-seamer less and his changeup and curve more often. It’s working. He throws strikes, he knows how to pitch and if, he can handle 30 starts without breaking down, he’ll be good all season.

4. Josh Donaldson is no fluke, either: He finished April with a .279/.338/.533 line, seven home runs and 23 RBIs. Just like 2013, he’ll be one of the best players in the American League.

5. Sonny Gray just might be an ace: I’ll admit I was skeptical heading into 2014 despite his dynamite showing at the end of 2013 and in the postseason. A short right-hander who is basically a two-pitch pitcher? I took a “prove it to me again” attitude. He’s proving it, alright, with a 4-1, 1.76 start, including that three-hit shutout against Darvish on Monday. Look, let’s not get carried away here: He’s only 16 starts into his career, and he needs to show he can handle 200 innings in the major leagues and pitch consistently every fifth day. But he is slowly working in a few changeups and sliders to go with his power heater and hammer curveball, and he’s got that “look” out there, not that I can define what that means.

6. Crisp has aged into an underrated star: Another Billy Beane special. Crisp does a little of everything: good range in center (although the metrics rate him off to a slow start with minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved), excellent percentage base stealer, doesn’t strike out much and he even added power last season with 22 home runs (and hit his third of 2014 on Wednesday). At 34, he’s playing the best baseball of his career.

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Who is baseball's best team right now?

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Discuss (Total votes: 13,183)

7. An improved Yoenis Cespedes: The feeling last season was that Cespedes got a little too homer-happy, selling out for the long ball. He hit 26 of them, but his walk rate dropped and his strikeouts increased, leading to a .240 average and sub-.300 OBP. He has 16 strikeouts and 12 walks so far, a much improved ratio over last season’s 137/37 mark. A more disciplined Cespedes is a more scary Cespedes.

8. I’m not worried about the bullpen: The A’s have lost three games they led heading into the ninth, one reason they’re 18-10 instead of 21-7 or 20-8. They have some power arms down there, however, and things will get sorted out. Sean Doolittle, for example, is 0-2 with a 5.68 ERA, but he’s also fanned 15 with no walks; he’ll be fine. Luke Gregerson is good, Jim Johnson has pitched better after a couple early bad outings, Ryan Cook is back, Fernando Abad has pitched very well and Dan Otero is a tricky right-hander. The pen is fine.

9. Manager Bob Melvin: One of the best in the business. The calm serenity of a redwood tree. Or something like that.

10. Green Collar Baseball: That’s the A’s official slogan of sorts. The team’s website includes it, and the clubhouse in spring training had a sign up to remind players of it, not that they need reminding. As Donaldson told me in spring training about what it means, "It’s about grinding every at-bat. That you’re never out of a game." It’s not necessarily playing with a chip on your shoulder just because you’re on the small-market A’s but showcasing your ability every day, no matter your salary, your service time, the number of fans in the park or your place in the standings. "I think you’re going have guys in this locker room who are going to be $20 million ballplayers," Donaldson said in March. "They may not be making $20 million right now, but there’s definitely potential for guys to make that money. 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."
1. I wrote about the Brewers-Pirates brawl here. While the brawl was certainly interesting, the biggest takeaway from the weekend has to be Ryan Braun's two home runs off Jason Grilli in the ninth -- one to win the game on Saturday, one to tie it on Sunday. It's only eight innings, but Grilli has yet to match last year's dominance, so something to watch.

2. The Oakland A's continue to impress and have the majors' biggest run differential at +32. Jesse Chavez, who replaced Jarrod Parker in the rotation when Parker went down in spring training, had his fourth straight solid start in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Astros and has allowed six runs in 26 innings with a 28/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Chavez pitches up in the strike zone with his 90-93 mph fastball but his cutter has developed into a nice weapon. What's interesting about it is that he locates on the outside part of the plate to left-handers and to right-handers. He's actually thrown it more than his four-seamer and while two of the three home runs he's allowed came off the cutter, batters are hitting .209 off it. He mixes in a curveball and changeup, making him four-pitch starter with good command. You have to like what he's done.

3. After a slow start, Josh Donaldson is also heating up. Over his past 12 games he's hitting .345 with four home runs, seven doubles and 12 RBIs and looking like the guy who finished fourth in the AL MVP voting last season. The A's have yet to play a team currently over .500, so this week's three-game series against the Rangers will be a good test.

4. Should the Braves be a little worried about Craig Kimbrel? He actually got pulled from Saturday's relief appearance -- his first outing in a week after resting a sore shoulder -- after giving up three hits, a walk and two runs. Jordan Walden had to come on to get the final out for the save. Kimbrel then wasn't used in Sunday's 14-inning loss to the Mets.

5. Dee Gordon continues to do good things for the Dodgers, hitting .367/.409/.483 with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Going back to last August, when he was recalled from Triple-A, Gordon is hitting .363 in 99 plate appearances. Still a sample size, but it's not like he has no track record of hitting. He's a career .301 hitter in the minors and hit .304 in 56 games as a rookie in 2011. Yes, he has no power, but if he can hit close to .300 and draw a few walks, he's going to steal a lot of bases and score runs in front of the big boys.

6. Giancarlo Stanton beat the Mariners with a walk-off grand slam on Friday, giving him six home runs and an MLB-leading 26 RBIs. The Stanton Fear Factor came into play in a big way on Sunday. The Mariners led 2-1 in the eighth. One out, runner on second, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon elects to intentionally walk Stanton, putting the go-ahead on base. I get it: Stanton has delivered some big hits. But he also has four times as many strikeouts as home runs. What is more likely to happen there? You cannot put the go-ahead on base there. If he beats you, he beats you, but giving the opponent a free runner often leads to bad things. A walk, fielder's choice and sacrifice fly gave the Marlins the win as Stanton came around to score. Great player, bad managing.

7. Robinson Cano is not driving the ball at all. He's hitting .268/.321/.352 with three doubles and one home run, his one home run coming in Texas when he did manage to sort of one-arm the ball just over the fence in right. Cano had hit 40-plus doubles the past five seasons, so the lack of extra-base hits is as concerning as the lack of home runs. Again, just 18 games, and he had an April like this in 2012 when he hit .267 with one home run and four RBIs, but he's part of the reason the Mariners have looked awful since that 3-0 start.

8. The Tigers won 2-1 on Sunday, in part because Ian Kinsler created a run all by himself with the help of some sloppy Angels defense. The Angels were credited (discredited?) with three errors on the play. By the way, Kinsler has played well so far, hitting .317/.353/.476. Miguel Cabrera, however, has yet to get untracked, hitting .220 with one home run.

9. Big win for the Nationals on Sunday, ralling from a 2-0 deficit against the Cardinals with two runs in the seventh and the winning run in the ninth. Danny Espinosa played a key role in both rallies, driving in a run in the seventh and single to start the winning rally. I criticized the Nationals on Thursday after a sloppy 8-0 loss to the Cardinals, but they managed a little redemption with wins on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around Bryce Harper getting benched on Saturday for not running out a groundball.

10. Finally, Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado had a busy weekend. On Sunday, he was heavily involved in the brawl, sucker-punching Travis Snider. On Friday, he pulled a Roy Hobbs and literally knocked the cover off the ball. Poor Pedro Alvarez; he's led the majors in errors the past two seasons and had to try and throw that thing to first base. It was ruled an infield hit.
1. The Fast and the Furious III: Who wins the AL MVP Award?

It's the third installment of the epic Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera trilogy, made even more intriguing by the mammoth contracts the two players just signed. While you can come up with a dozen legitimate MVP candidates in the National League, AL honors will almost surely go to Trout or Cabrera, barring a miracle Mariners run to the AL West title or something like that. Even though Cabrera has dominated the voting the past two seasons -- he received 45 first-place votes to just 11 for Trout -- I'm leaning toward Trout winning in 2014 for the following reasons:

(1) I think he's going to take a small step forward. It's hard to imagine him playing better, but Trout's suggestion that's he going to be more aggressive swinging early in the count could actually be a good thing. Among 140 qualified regulars last season, Trout ranked 140th in swing rate (37 percent). He ranked 131st in swing rate on first pitches. Trout is too disciplined to start hacking at pitches out of the zone, so zeroing in on certain pitches early in the count could lead to more production without sacrificing his walk rate all that much.

(2) Cabrera will be hard-pressed to match the past two seasons. That's not a knock, just an awareness of how good he's been (including a sick .397/.529/.782 line with runners in scoring position last year). Last September's injury issues -- he hit .278 with one home run -- show that Cabrera is human even when his body fails him. He says he's fine after offseason surgery, but it still raises a small question heading into the season.

(3) Only one player -- Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004 -- has won three consecutive MVP awards. Voters don't like to give it to the same player every year. In fact, Cabrera was just the second AL player in 40 years to win back-to-back MVP honors (Frank Thomas was the last in 1993-94). If the numbers are close, that works in Trout's favor this time around.

(4) More awareness that Trout is the better all-around player. Cabrera has been worth 7.2 and 7.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference) the past two seasons, Trout 10.8 and 8.9. Polls of general managers have indicated they think Trout is the better player. Again, that's not a knock on Cabrera, the best hitter in the game.

(5) The Angels should be better. The biggest roadblock to Trout winning the past two seasons was the Angels missing the playoffs. In recent years, voters have almost exclusively given the MVP Award to a guy on a playoff team. The Tigers are still the better bet for the postseason, so that could ultimately swing the award back to Cabrera for a third straight year.

2. Who is this year's Josh Donaldson or Matt Carpenter?

Historically, these guys had pretty amazing and unique seasons. Donaldson was 27, in his first full season as a starter, and he surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the AL MVP vote. Carpenter, also 27 and playing every day for the first time, finished fourth in the NL MVP vote. And then there was Chris Davis -- also 27 -- who mashed 53 home runs and knocked in 138 runs. He had a little more of a résumé than Donaldson or Carpenter, having hit 33 home runs the year before, but nobody had him as a preseason MVP candidate.

Odds are slim that we'll see even one of those types of performances, let alone three, but since 27 seemed to be the magical age, here are some guys playing their age-27 seasons in 2014: Pedro Alvarez, Jay Bruce, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Justin Smoak, Jason Kipnis, Pablo Sandoval, Desmond Jennings, Josh Reddick, Ike Davis, Michael Saunders, Yonder Alonso. Hmm ... Alvarez certainly could go all Chris Davis on us (he hit 36 home runs in 2013), but I don't see a Donaldson or Carpenter in there; then again, we didn't see a Donaldson or Carpenter coming last year. (Guys such as Bruce, Kipnis and Sandoval are already pretty accomplished players.)

If we go down to age-26 players, I see a few more interesting candidates: Brandon Belt (I've written about him), Kyle Seager, Khris Davis, Kole Calhoun, Dustin Ackley. So there you go: Kole Calhoun, MVP candidate!

3. Are the Yankees too old?

Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:

C -- Brian McCann (30 years old)
1B -- Mark Teixeira (34)
2B -- Brian Roberts (36)
3B -- Kelly Johnson (32)
SS -- Derek Jeter (40)
LF -- Brett Gardner (30)
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury (30)
RF -- Carlos Beltran (37)
DH -- Alfonso Soriano (38)

The top subs are Ichiro Suzuki (40) and Brendan Ryan (32). If those guys ending up staying reasonably healthy, the Yankees won't have one regular younger than 30. I wonder if that's ever happened before. The rotation features 33-year-old CC Sabathia and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.

And yet ... the Yankees may be better than we expect. I have them at 84 wins, which is right where the projection systems have them (FanGraphs at 83 wins, Baseball Prospectus also at 83), and I'm beginning to wonder if that's too conservative. Masahiro Tanaka looked terrific this spring and maybe he does match the 2.59 ERA projected by the Oliver system as opposed to the 3.68 of ZiPS or 3.87 of Steamer. Michael Pineda could provide a huge boost to the rotation. The offense is going to score a lot more runs than last year. Yes, age and injuries will be the deciding factor, but the Yankees have defied Father Time in the past.

4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?

I'm going with explode -- in a good way. That doesn't mean he isn't going to give Don Mattingly headaches or miss the cutoff guy every now and then or get a little exuberant on the base paths on occasion or incite columnists to write about the good ol' days when Mickey Mantle always showed up to the ballpark on time. But the positives will outweigh the negatives, he'll provide tons of energy to the Dodgers, he'll be one of the most exciting players in the game and he's going to have a big, big season.

5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?

For a team that won 96 games, the Braves enter the season with a surprising range of outcomes. Minus Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen, this won't be the same team as last year. But maybe that's a good thing if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton don't hit .179 and .184 again. The Braves allowed fewer runs in 2013 than any of the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz teams, so they were going to be hard-pressed to match that run prevention anyway. Implode or explode? I'm going somewhere in the middle, with 86 wins -- which may be just enough to capture a wild card.

6. Who are the most important players of 2014?

The first 10 names that pop into my head, without analysis or explanation (other than to say these are players with a great deal of potential volatility in their performance or a high degree injury risk):

1. Derek Jeter, Yankees
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Tim Lincecum, Giants
4. Billy Hamilton, Reds
5. Francisco Liriano, Pirates
6. Scott Kazmir, A's
7. Albert Pujols, Angels
8. Michael Wacha, Cardinals
9. B.J. Upton, Braves
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles

7. Which team is baseball's worst?

I'm going with the Astros, although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Phillies plummet to the bottom. Or the Twins. If you want a dark horse team, how about the Blue Jays? The rotation could be a disaster and if even Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and/or Edwin Encarnacion suffer lengthy injuries, the offense could collapse, as well.

8. Is offense going to decrease across the league again?

Considering there's going to be even more drug testing this year, I'll say it drops a tiny bit. Here are the runs per game totals in recent seasons:

2006: 4.86
2007: 4.80
2008: 4.65
2009: 4.61
2010: 4.38
2011: 4.28
2012: 4.32
2013: 4.17

The increased use of defensive shifts will continue to make it harder to hit singles, and the pitching just seems to get better and better. Yes, we had several guys go down with season-ending injuries in spring training -- most notably Medlen, Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin -- but we've added Tanaka, we'll get full seasons from the likes of Wacha and Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray and Chris Archer and Tony Cingrani, and other young guns such as Taijuan Walker, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray, Archie Bradley and Jameson Taillon could make major impacts. Plus, Joe Blanton won't be in the Angels' rotation.

9. Who is this year's Pirates?

By "this year's Pirates," we mean a team that finishes under .500 the year before and unexpectedly soars into the playoffs. We actually had three such teams make the playoffs last year: the Pirates, Red Sox and Indians. In 2012, we had the Orioles, A's, Reds and Nationals. In 2011, we had the Brewers and Diamondbacks. In 2010, we had the Reds.

The Royals don't count because they won 86 games last year, so improving a few wins and reaching the playoffs wouldn't be a surprise.

Technically, the Giants fit since they were below .500, but they would hardly be a surprise team just two years after winning the World Series.

Who does that leave? I see three choices in each league:

Blue Jays, Mariners, Angels -- The Blue Jays need their rotation to produce in a tough division, the Mariners maybe can take advantage of injuries to the A's and Rangers. The Angels were below .500, but they've been perennial playoff contenders, so they hardly fit the "surprise" definition.

Padres, Rockies, Brewers -- I'd be most inclined to go with the Rockies here, as they have two stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and just need better production from the back of the rotation (although the early injury to Jhoulys Chacin doesn't help). I've been on the Brewers' bandwagon the past two years and refuse to jump on this year (which means they're probably headed to the World Series).

10. Who are five rookies who will impact the pennant races?

1. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees. Don't be surprised if he's a Cy Young contender.

2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox. We saw his already-polished game in the postseason last October.

3. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds. The speed is Cool Papa Bell turn-of-the-light-switch-and-be-in-bed-before-the-room-goes-dark kind of speed. The defense should be above average, but will he hit?

4. Gregory Polanco, RF, and Jameson Taillon, P, Pirates. They won't be up to start the season but will eventually be part of Pittsburgh's playoff drive.

5. Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers. With Cabrera moving over to first, he takes over at third base with potential to produce with the bat.

11. Which division race will be the most exciting?

I'm going with the AL West, which should be a three-team race between the A's, Rangers and Angels, with the Mariners possibly making it a four-team race. Or maybe the AL East, which could be a titanic struggle between the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles. Or the NL West, which could be a five-team race if the Dodgers fall back to the pack. Or the NL Central, if the Cardinals aren't as dominant as I believe they will be. Or the AL Central, which the Tigers won by only a game last year. Or the NL East ... which, well, I can't see this as anything but a two-team race. (Sorry, Mets, Marlins and Phillies fans.)

12. Who are some other award contenders?

Here are my picks:

AL MVP
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Evan Longoria
4. Adrian Beltre
5. Dustin Pedroia

AL Cy Young
1. David Price
2. Yu Darvish
3. Max Scherzer
4. Justin Verlander
5. Felix Hernandez

AL Rookie
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Xander Bogaerts
3. Nick Castellanos

AL home run champ
1. Chris Davis
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Edwin Encarnacion

AL batting champ
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Joe Mauer

NL MVP
1. Yadier Molina
2. Joey Votto
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Hanley Ramirez
5. Ryan Braun

NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Jose Fernandez
4. Zack Greinke
5. Adam Wainwright

NL Rookie
1. Billy Hamilton
2. Chris Owings
3. Travis d'Arnaud

NL home run champ
1. Giancarlo Stanton
2. Pedro Alvarez
3. Paul Goldschmidt

NL batting champ
1. Joey Votto
2. Andrew McCutchen
3. Yadier Molina

13. Do the Red Sox win it all?
No, but they do make the playoffs. My final standings:

AL East
Tampa Bay: 93-69
Boston: 91-71
New York: 84-78
Baltimore: 84-78
Toronto: 78-84

AL Central
Detroit: 91-71
Kansas City: 82-80
Cleveland: 79-83
Chicago: 71-91
Minnesota: 67-95

AL West
Texas: 88-74
Oakland: 87-75
Los Angeles: 83-79
Seattle: 76-86
Houston: 61-101

NL East
Washington: 93-69
Atlanta: 86-76
New York: 73-89
Miami: 73-89
Philadelphia: 65-97

NL Central
St. Louis: 95-67
Cincinnati: 85-77
Pittsburgh: 84-78
Milwaukee: 79-83
Chicago: 70-92

NL West
Los Angeles: 94-68
San Francisco: 82-80
San Diego: 80-82
Colorado: 79-83
Arizona: 78-84

14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.
Since I just wrote a little profile on Josh Donaldson, we may as well do an over/under on him.

In his first full season in the majors, Donaldson played 158 games, hit .301 with 24 home runs, ranked second behind only Mike Trout in the American League in WAR and finished fourth in the MVP voting.

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Over or under on Josh Donaldson hitting .279?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,436)

Was it legit? Or did Donaldson just have a career year at 27? While he hit just .241 in 2012 in 75 games, that was after an awful start. After getting sent down to the minors and then recalled, he did hit .290 over the final 47 games in 2012, so his stretch of good hitting goes past just 2013.

He was pretty consistent last year, hitting .310/.379/.522 in the first half, .286/.391/.466 in the second half. His power did drop a bit, but he also finished strong, hitting .337 with five home runs in September.

What about 2014? ZiPS is especially pessimistic, having him at .257. Steamer has him at .267. A third system, Oliver, is more positive with a .284 mark. Let's put the over/under at .279.
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.

[+] EnlargeJosh Donaldson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesJosh Donaldson was second in the American League with a 8.0 WAR last season.
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.

* * * *

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.



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.

Josh DonaldsonESPN Stats & InformationDonaldson hit 12 home runs in 250 at-bats with runners on base.
Josh DonaldsonESPN Stats & InformationDonaldson hit 12 home runs in 329 at-bats with the bases empty.


"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."

* * * *

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.

Who can't top what they did in 2013?

December, 28, 2013
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You might think sabermetrics is merely the pursuit of joyless predictability, but a big part of my enjoyment of sabermetrics doesn’t come from the results that match our expectations but rather is derived from the guys who totally upset them, guys whose results defied prediction or anticipation. The trick is that most of them can’t sustain that kind of surprise. The 2013 season gave us our fair share of guys who broke out, but here’s a group of five who will have a hard time topping what they did last season, not just in 2014, but ever.

Let’s start with third baseman Josh Donaldson of the Athletics. Starting off as a hot-corner conversion project to help the A’s paper over their lack of a viable alternative, the former catcher busted out big, ripping 64 extra-base hits and finishing fourth in the AL MVP race. He put up an 8.0 WAR season, good for fourth in the major leagues, a better year in that regard than the ones put up by Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano. Donaldson’s .883 OPS wasn’t just unexpected, it was totally out of character from everything we’d already seen from him, 50 points higher than his minor league career rate. His walk rate also significantly outperformed his minor league numbers, and his .333 BABIP was significantly better than anything he’d done in any full season in the minors.
[+] EnlargeJosh Donaldson
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJosh Donaldson had plenty to celebrate in 2013, but can he deliver again next year?

If you can set aside any reservations you have about WAR, eight-win players don’t just manifest out of thin air. Among the 115 guys who’ve had eight-WAR seasons since the start of the divisional play, the only guy who might be more surprising to see there than Donaldson was Bernard Gilkey and his big year back in 1996.

So, where did that Donaldson leap come from? Was it the benefit of finally not having to deal with the wear and tear of catching? Or perhaps a classic case of a guy busting out in his age-27 season? A mere BABIP aberration? Whatever it was, that was followed by some postseason shaming at the hands of the Tigers, creating questions. However, that’s the best rotation in the league, and Donaldson didn’t face especially weak competition (ranking 53rd out of 107 AL batters with 400 or more plate appearances according to Baseball Prospectus), so it wasn’t merely a matter of clobbering weak opponents.

As fun as it was, it’s hard to see Donaldson sticking around at this level of production consistently, if only because it would be unprecedented. The Bill James Handbook forecast a 77-point tumble in OPS, and other projection systems are going to be similarly predictably skeptical, anticipating a drop-off because that’s how they generally work with players with histories like Donaldson’s. On the half-full side of the glass, though, if you had told A’s fans a year ago that they could have a third baseman who could put up a .780-.800 OPS with good D and durability, they’d have offered you their firstborn in exchange. It might all be downhill from his 2013, but Donaldson should remain an asset for a contender. Not many guys can shed 100 points of OPS and still say that.

Moving over to pitchers, one easy exercise in separating actual performance from what you were supposed to get given a pitcher’s peripheral numbers such as strikeout and walk rates is to subtract a guy’s ERA from FIP: Presto, you have a leaderboard of surprise pitchers you might want to bet against. I’ll start with Hector Santiago because he’s someone who just got dealt and the Angels are banking on, but he’s also someone who’s likely to see his ERA jump by a run if FIP is any guide.

As promising as Santiago’s arm is because he’s a southpaw with low-90s heat, a big part of the problem is the huge number of people he’s putting on base. Only Jake Arrieta and Jason Marquis put more people on first base via unintentional walks and hit batsmen than Santiago’s 13 percent clip last season. The hit batsmen -- 15 last season alone -- might partially be a function of Santiago’s need to work inside, which he had to do to survive pitching at U.S. Cellular Field, the best home run ballpark for right-handed hitters; as HotZone reflects, he struggled when he let righties get good extension. Getting out of the Cell should spare him many of the penalties of making a mistake in the zone, but, if his command isn’t just a function of that environment -- and he was still putting guys on first base at a 12 percent clip on the road last season-- you probably can expect his ERA to go up as much as FIP suggests.

Joe Kelly of the Cardinals is another name in that ranking of pitchers to worry about who might surprise you after the role he played in their pursuit of the National League pennant, posting a 10-5 record and 2.69 ERA. Add in a fastball that sits around 95 mph and what’s not to love? Approached analytically, the problem is the absence of strikeouts, where FIP “expects” more whiffs. In the real world, Kelly works hard at being an effective sinker/slider guy as a starter, pounding the bottom of the zone, which produces an exceptionally poor strikeout rate (4.8 K/9). That plus a lot of run support (almost six runs per nine last season) produced the contrast between the gaudy win total and ERA against a 3.98 FIP and the expectation that run support comes and goes. What you’re left with is a guy who still looks pretty good if you’re talking about your team’s fifth starter, his lot with the Cardinals, but if you were banking on big win totals and an ERA under 3.0 in a full season of rotation work -- don’t.

Because I set my cutoff at 70 innings, Rangers reliever Tanner Scheppers is easy to pick on because of the distance between his expected and actual performance: A 3.77 FIP versus his 1.88 ERA. There’s a pen man like that any given season; it’s always harder to sustain that kind of fluky discrepancy over a larger number of innings. But, as a sinker-slider guy, Scheppers is a defense-dependent ground-pounder, which is why he profited greatly from inducing an MLB-best DP rate of 24.5 percent in double-play situations. If he can continue that kind of execution, that’s great, but can you bank on it? Even a slip back to something closer to league average will mean a bunch of runs allowed in tight late-game situations for the Rangers, as well as a big jump in Scheppers’ ERA.

Finally, let’s talk about outfielder Marlon Byrd. A 30-something slugger who owes a big chunk of his power production to Texas’ home park leaves after 2009, has two disappointing seasons with the Cubs, then falls over a cliff in his age-34 season. And that’s it for him, right? Not at all: Byrd’s big bounce-back in 2013 after earning a job with the Mets in spring training made him a key stretch pickup for the Pirates. His combined .511 slugging percentage made him this winter’s quick addition to the fast-acting Phillies for two years (or three if a 2016 option vests) at $8 million per annum.

There are all sorts of “that won’t be easy” warning signs about Byrd’s 2013. Can he repeat a career-high .220 Isolated Power clip as a 36-year-old? Or a .353 batting average on balls in play, his best mark since his breakthrough 2007 season with the Rangers? Or a career-best 11.1 percent clip of homers on fly balls? It’s notable that Byrd has become a significantly different, more aggressive batsman with age, striking out a career-high 24.9 percent of the time last season while his unintentional walk rate plummeted to 5 percent, while also becoming a more pronounced fly-ball hitter.

That would be a tough act to sustain for people with considerably stronger track records than Byrd’s. Tip your cap to Byrd for earning another multiyear deal in his 30s, but don’t be surprised when this turns out as badly for the Phillies as it did for the Cubs.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The MVP case for Josh Donaldson

September, 23, 2013
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Note: We're making the case for each of the five top AL MVP contenders today. Here's Robinson Cano and now Josh Donaldson.

1. Baseball Reference WAR leaders: Mike Trout 9.1, Donaldson 8.1, Robinson Cano 7.4, Miguel Cabrera 7.3, Chris Davis 6.1. FanGraphs WAR leaders: Trout 10.2, Donaldson 7.7, Cabrera 7.7, Davis 6.4, Cano 6.0. So by WAR, Donaldson is clearly a strong and viable candidate, even if he hasn't received the same attention throughout the season as the others.

2. The A's have clinched the AL West. The Angels are under .500. An MVP should arguably come from a playoff team -- or at least a team in contention. The Angels have been dead since April.

3. Games in September may not matter more, although most people say they do, but they at least have a certain intensity to them that maybe games in April and May don't. The A's began the month in second place but won the division in part because Donaldson has hit a monster .389/.500/.708 in September, with five home runs, eight doubles, 15 RBIs and 17 runs in 20 games. Overall, he's hitting .306/.388/.511, with 24 home runs, 92 RBIs and 86 runs, ranking fifth in the AL in OPS+ and runs created.

4. Where would the A's be without Donaldson? With Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes both having big declines from last season, the only other Oakland players with a 4-WAR season are Bartolo Colon (4.9) and Coco Crisp (4.1). Donaldson has easily been the best player on a team without a lot of star power.

5. Defense matters. One reason Donaldson's WAR is better or equal to Cabrera and Davis is defense. He's at +12 defensive runs saved while Cabrera is -17 at the same position. That's a 29-run difference right there. Davis is -7 DRS at first base.

6. Ballparks. Donaldson plays in a tough park for hitters, especially for average due to all the foul territory in Oakland. He's hitting .321/.410/.500 on the road, the fifth-best road batting average in the majors and the seventh-best wOBA.

7. He's hitting .344 with runners in scoring position and .318 in "late and close" situations.

8. Baseball-Reference also keeps track of how players hit in high-leverage situations, when the game is closest. Donaldson's .394 average is third-best in the majors (minimum 60 PAs) and higher than Cano (.351), Davis (.342), Cabrera (.326) and Trout (.258).

9. Against the Rangers, the A's rival for the AL West crown, Donaldson hit .343/.451/.582.

10. In fact, Donaldson has hit much better against good teams than bad teams: A .993 OPS against teams over .500 and an .818 OPS against teams under .500. You gotta love a guy who raises his game against the toughest competition.
video

Keith Law wrote about players who have exceeded his expectations and Eric Karabell and myself have a corresponding video on four players who have surprised us the most in 2013. Can you say Josh Donaldson, MVP candidate?
Let's be honest: The American League wild-card "race" is more like two marathon runners stumbling to the finish line. As my colleague Jim Caple points out, over the past month the Rangers are 11-16, the Rays are 13-16, the Orioles are 14-15, the Yankees are 15-13, the Royals 16-14 and the Indians 16-12. The six wild-card contenders are a combined one game under .500 since Aug. 15. Not exactly gripping baseball going on here.

At-bat of the day: Justin Morneau hit the go-ahead single in the eighth inning of Pittsburgh's 3-2 win over the Cubs, but how about Josh Donaldson's first-inning, two-out homer to give the A's an early 2-0 lead over the Rangers. Oakland would go on to a 5-1 victory, completing the sweep and essentially wrapping up the division title. By the way, Baseball-Reference AL WAR leaders: Mike Trout 8.7, Donaldson 7.4, Robinson Cano 7.1, Chris Sale 6.9, Miguel Cabrera 6.8. FanGraphs: Trout 10.0, Cabrera 7.4, Donaldson 7.1. Sounds like Donaldson has some MVP arguments, at least based on WAR.

Pitching performance of the day: Clay Buchholz walked four in six innings but allowed just two hits and an unearned run in improving to 11-0 with a 1.51 ERA. Buchholz is at 95.1 innings. Pitchers since 1950 with a lower ERA, at least 100 innings: Bob Gibson, 1968 (1.12); Ted Abernathy, 1967 (1.27); Bruce Sutter, 1977 (1.34); Mel Rojas, 1992 (1.43); John Hiller, 1973 (1.44); Jesse Orosco, 1983 (1.47).


Most important win: The Indians waited out a long rain delay to beat the White Sox 7-1 and climb to a half-game behind the Rangers and Rays. Maybe it will be Cleveland's year: Matt Carson, who had appeared in nine games as a defensive replacement, made his first start and went 3-for-3 with a home run, two RBIs and a stolen base.

Most important loss: The Rays led 3-0 in the seventh when David Price tired and then 4-2 in the eighth when the Twins scored four runs -- all after two outs and nobody on. Ryan Doumit homered off Joel Peralta, Trevor Plouffe singled, Josh Willingham walked and then Josmil Pinto smacked a three-run homer, sending the Rays to a devastating defeat. The Rays' next 11 games: Rangers (4), Orioles (4), at Yankees (3).

Monday's best pitching matchup: Matt Garza versus Alex Cobb (Rangers at Rays, 7:10 ET). Good news here for the Indians, Orioles, Yankees and Royals: The two wild-card leaders will beat up on each other over the next four days, opening the door for games to be gained. Garza has a 5.16 ERA over his past eight starts -- with just one quality start. The "best" deadline trade acquisition has been a huge flop.

Player to watch: Johnny Cueto is making his first start since June 28. The Reds are 3.5 behind the Pirates and Cardinals, but are now just 4.5 ahead of the streaking Nationals, who have won eight of nine. It would still take a sizable collapse for the Reds to blow it, but stranger things have happened.

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