Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Josh Donaldson and the myth of the ‘New Moneyball’Posted by Pat Andriola
The 2012 Josh Donaldson seems like Billy Beane's offseason hopes coming true: a player the organization had high hopes for helping out during a playoff run. A former first-round pick and catching prospect with the Cubs who came to Oakland in the Rich Harden trade way back in 2008, Donaldson displayed skills that made it understandable why he'd fit into the Bay Area. He walked a good amount, struck out a good amount, hit for decent power, and was defensively strong and versatile. Despite just a .241/.289/.398 slash line (good for a 90 wRC+), Donaldson played a stellar third base (5.5 runs added in just 75 games) and totaled 1.5 WAR, a solid contribution from a low-salary player on the fringes of the 25-man roster.
The 2013 Josh Donaldson is Billy Beane's wildest dreams coming true: a player the organization had high hopes for really figuring it out. At a time when Josh Reddick (.241 wOBA), Chris Young (.289 wOBA), and Eric Sogard (.268 wOBA) are all struggling at the plate, Donaldson is one of a handful of surprising Oakland hitters stepping up in a big way. The right-handed hitter is hitting .303/.387/.487, good for a 143 wRC+. His .380 wOBA is fourth among all third basemen in the major leagues, ahead of the likes of Pablo Sandoval, Adrian Beltre, Will Middlebrooks, and Manny Machado.
His defense isn't as great as it was last year (according to UZR), but he's still in the top third of all third basemen. This from a guy who hit .238 at 24 years old in the immensely hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
Driving Donaldson's success is his high walk rate, which jumped from 4.8 percent last season to 12.4 thus far this year. It isn't too much a surprise, given he had rates of 18.3 percent in Low-A ball, 14.8 in Double-A, and 12.9 in Triple-A; still, that puts him ahead of Miguel Cabrera among all third basemen (trailing only David Wright). Donaldson is a perfect microcosm of the A's as a whole. No real superstars, but solid hitters up and down the lineup. Their shortstop has a .386 wOBA. Their center fielder is at .402. Both their catchers are above average hitters.
There's a subtle but discernible meme out there that the Athletics have reworked their earlier Moneyball philosophy by focusing on defense, speed, and other supposed market inefficiencies, jettisoning their early 2000s approach of Three True Outcomes in favor of a nimble outfield and a higher batting average. That couldn't be further from the truth.
In fact, the current installment has higher strikeout and walk rates than the 2002 version, as well as just as poor defense (a team total of -12.8 UZR so far this year, the worst in baseball). The A's team walk rate is first in baseball, and the difference between them and the second team (Boston) is the same as the difference between Boston and the ninth overall team (Colorado).
Some people think the Moneyball strategy was idiosyncratic, a formula that would not work today. But homers and walks are still valuable, and there's no indication of their decline. In fact, in lower run scoring environments, they're as important as ever. Josh Donaldson is the new Scott Hatteberg.