Commentary

Josh Donaldson's breakout season

Athletics third baseman overcoming obstacles, quietly establishing himself

Originally Published: June 13, 2013
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

If there were any doubts that Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson is in the middle of a special season -- and having a blast each step of the way -- he recently dispelled them with one of the most entertaining displays of 5 o'clock hitting since Mark McGwire was launching balls into the stratosphere at Coors Field in the late 1990s.

An Overstock.com sign sits behind the left-field fence at O.co Coliseum, and the Oakland hitter who plops a ball inside the "O" wins $10,000 for a lucky fan. Before a recent game against the White Sox, Donaldson hit the target during batting practice and responded with an uninhibited, arm-waving, reverse home run trot. He began his victory lap by tossing his cap in the air in jubilation and ended it amid cheers, guffaws and high-fives from his teammates at home plate.

"You don't ever think you're going to hit it inside that hole, so I ended up going nuts," Donaldson says. "My first thought was to get the ball out of the net, and I was halfway out there when I realized, 'That's too far.' So I took a right turn and thought, 'This is an even worse decision.' I'm sure anybody who knows me thought, 'That's Josh, all right.'"

Once the games begin, Donaldson knows enough to circle the bases properly. He's getting plenty of practice.

[+] EnlargeJosh Donaldson
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesJosh Donaldson ranks third in OPS (.897) among AL third basemen.

Donaldson, a down-to-earth Alabaman, is quietly having a breakthrough season in Oakland. He's tied for eighth in the American League in OPS at .897 and ranks fifth in wins above replacement at 3.1. He's hitting .357 with runners in scoring position and .750 (6-for-8) with 13 RBIs with the bases loaded.

Donaldson, 27, gets overlooked for an abundance of reasons. The A's rarely appear on national TV, even though they're a major league-best 97-53 since July 1. They rank 26th in baseball in attendance with an average of 20,932 fans a game. And Donaldson plays a position, third base, that's downright stacked. In the American League alone, he has to stand in line for recognition behind Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, future Hall of Fame candidate Adrian Beltre, face of the Tampa Bay franchise Evan Longoria and Baltimore's Manny Machado, one of baseball's elite young stars. He ranked a distant fifth behind those four players in the latest round of AL All-Star balloting.

But Donaldson keeps winning people over with his consistent production, his cocky-yet-likable demeanor and his insistence on playing every day through slumps, fatigue, nagging injuries and every other obstacle in his path.

"He's been our leader in more ways than one," says Mike Gallego, Oakland's third-base and infield coach. "He has this mindset that he's going to do something special every day when he comes to the ballpark.

"He's so focused on working and playing winning baseball, sometimes people think it's a little overboard. But this guy is the closest you're going to see now to the old-school mentality. He's the 'eat, sleep and drink baseball'-type guy, and you don't see that too much anymore. He's just a baseball rat."

Born competitor

Donaldson always had a zest for competition regardless of the sport. At Faith Academy in Mobile, Ala., he played on a state championship baseball team with P.J. Walters, now a member of the Minnesota Twins' rotation, and pitcher Steven Upchurch, a 12th-round draft pick by the White Sox in 2008. Come fall, Donaldson would turn his attention to the football field, where he was a defensive back and a glue-fingered wide receiver for the Rams.

"

Everybody has their own story and their own upbringing, and it's not all peaches and cream.

" -- Josh Donaldson

It wasn't uncommon for Donaldson to finish football practice, peel off the uniform and have baseball coach Lloyd Skoda stick around to hit him ground balls. A lot of nights coach and player dragged themselves off the field around 7 p.m., just as the sun was setting.

"I said, 'Josh, you're killing me, son,'" Skoda recalls. "And he said, 'Coach, do you want me to be good or not?'"

Donaldson learned all about coping with trying circumstances at an early age. When he was 4 or 5 years old, his father, Levon, went to prison for 15 years on drug and domestic violence offenses. Donaldson recently shared his story with Athletics beat reporters on Mother's Day because he wanted to pay tribute to his mom, Lisa French, for her unyielding support, love and encouragement during his formative years.

"Everybody has their own story and their own upbringing, and it's not all peaches and cream," Donaldson says. "Your life experiences shape who you are. You make the decision to go one way or the other way, and I really think my mom affected my decision to go in the right way. It's paid off so far."

Donaldson played second base and shortstop at Faith Academy and split his time at third base and catcher at Auburn University before the Chicago Cubs chose him 48th overall in the 2007 MLB draft. The Cubs projected him as a potential catcher of the future before trading him to Oakland in 2008 as part of a six-player deal that brought pitcher Rich Harden to Chicago.

The A's threw Donaldson into the fray at third base as a rookie last season after Scott Sizemore went down with a knee injury in April. Donaldson feels comfortable at the position because of his background as an infielder, but he's developed a methodical work routine to take his defense to the next level.

Rather than focus on quantity, Donaldson concentrates on smart, efficient work at game speed. He'll take five to 10 balls to his left, then five to 10 to his right. Then Gallego will hit him several hard smashes followed by some slow rollers. With every fungo, Donaldson is reading the ball off the bat and honing his all-important first step.

Gallego, a member of three straight AL pennant winners in Oakland from 1988-90, has been impressed by Donaldson's "veteran mindset" and insistence on creating good work habits through repetition. Donaldson is tied for sixth among MLB third basemen this season in the Fielding Bible runs saved rankings (and has three ESPN Web Gems to his credit), so he's already realizing the benefits of his approach.

"We've gotten Josh to believe in the importance of using your eyes and your feet," Gallego says. "Some guys get it and take it to heart. Well, this guy has gotten it and taken it to heart. That's definitely enhanced his game. But it also helps to have the talent this kid has."

The Gomes effect

It takes a village to make an All-Star. Donaldson's mom laid the groundwork, and Skoda and his other youth coaches cultivated his love for sports. Manager Bob Melvin, hitting coach Chili Davis, Gallego and Phil Garner, a special adviser with the A's, have helped Donaldson tend to specific facets of his game and hastened the learning curve in Oakland.

"

Jonny believed in me a little bit more than I believed in myself, and that's saying a lot.

" -- Josh Donaldson on former
teammate Jonny Gomes

But one of the most influential developments in Donaldson's young career came last year when veteran outfielder-DH Jonny Gomes arrived in the East Bay with his toughness, his tattoos and his nail-spitting, perpetually old-school approach to the game.

Gomes watched Donaldson hit in the cage last spring and was immediately struck by the kid's level, low-maintenance swing and professional approach to batting practice. Donaldson used the entire field and didn't step in the box looking to just yank balls for the adrenaline rush or the ego fulfillment. Almost immediately, Gomes took Donaldson under his wing and shared the accrued wisdom he had gained from a decade in the majors.

"I told him, 'You're in my pocket. Wherever I am, you are. And you don't speak until you're spoken to,'" Gomes recalls. "He can be kind of a Chatty Patty."

Donaldson encountered some setbacks in his rookie year. He was hitting .094 when the A's sent him to Triple-A Sacramento for a refresher course in May and .154 when they shipped him to the Pacific Coast League for a second time in June.

[+] EnlargeJosh Donaldson
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesDonaldson has been honing his third-base skills under the tutelage of infield coach Mike Gallego.

The lessons finally took root. Donaldson hit .290 after the All-Star break, and the A's closed with a 33-13 run to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. By the end of the season, Donaldson knew that he belonged, and Gomes had played a big part in the transformation.

"Jonny believed in me a little bit more than I believed in myself, and that's saying a lot," Donaldson says. "There were a couple of instances where I tried to lay down a bunt or showed bunt, and I would come back to the dugout and he would say, 'Dude, quit trying to bunt.' I thought I could get a couple of hits that way, so I tried it again. And Jonny said, 'JD, if you try to bunt again, I'm going to fight you.' I didn't really want to fight Jonny, so that was the end of my bunting."

Gomes left the Athletics for the Red Sox as a free agent in December, but he maintains a healthy interest in the development of Josh Reddick, Derek Norris, Donaldson and his other young protégés in Oakland. When the A's traveled to Boston for a series in April, Gomes gave Donaldson a pep talk and dared him to dream big. If Donaldson had a vague notion that a spot in the All-Star Game was unattainable because of the American League's hot corner backlog, Gomes wanted him to know that that line of thinking was unacceptable. He saw absolutely no reason Donaldson should defer to anyone.

"I told him, 'Listen, buddy, you keep driving this bus. I don't want you to have an All-Star break,'" Gomes says. "I put a lot of weight on his shoulders. I was checking the box scores right after that thinking, 'I hope I didn't bury this kid.' But he took it and ran with it. He's really turned the corner in a hurry."

The numbers from ESPN Stats & Information reveal that Donaldson is a better hitter this season in large part because he's taking a more discerning approach at the plate. Donaldson's walk rate has increased to 10.1 percent from 4.8 percent last season, and his "chase rate" on breaking balls out of the strike zone has dipped from 37 to 26 percent. He is also hitting .323 in at-bats ending in fastballs or sinkers, compared to .196 a year ago.

Donaldson's increased comfort level is readily apparent from the dugouts, the box seats and way back home in Alabama. Skoda, who spent 29 years as Faith Academy's baseball coach before retiring last month, monitors Donaldson and Walters on TV via the MLB Extra Innings package. He could tell by Donaldson's body language at the plate in September that something had changed.

"His first time up he was going 90 miles an hour with everything, and I told my wife, 'He's got to slow it down,'" Skoda says. "He went to the minor leagues and came up again, and he was still going 90. I told my wife, 'He's still speeding up too much.'

"So they sent him down again and brought him back up. The third time, I'm watching the game, and he gets in the box and takes a deep breath and slows everything down. I turned to my wife and said, 'He's ready. He's a big leaguer now.'"

Not to mention a budding leader and All-Star. That goofy, backward home run trot notwithstanding, Donaldson is headed in the right direction.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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