Tale of two MVPs: Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson differ in paths to award

The NL’s Bryce Harper and AL’s Josh Donaldson have had fascinatingly different careers en route to the 2015 MVP award. Where they go next will be something to watch.
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As expected, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldsonwere named the Most Valuable Players in the National and American League by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Thursday night. Harper won the NL award unanimously, receiving the first–place vote on all 30 ballots submitted. Donaldson claimed 23 first–place votes in the AL, the other seven going to last year’s winner, Mike Trout. For the 29-year-old Donaldson, his journey to this point was long and circuitous. For Harper, who turned 23 on Oct. 16 and is the youngest ever to win the award unanimously and the fourth-youngest MVP, period (after Vida Blue, Johnny Bench and Stan Musial), it was a much more direct trip, but one no less compelling.

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A teenage phenomenon at Las Vegas High School, Harper famously made the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16 as the subject of a Tom Verducci profile that labeled him “Baseball’s Chosen One.” The following February, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus named him the top prospect in the game. He was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year at the age of 19 for a season in which he slugged .477 with 22 home runs,18 stolen bases and 98 runs, splitting his time between center and rightfield for Washington; Harper finished that season by hitting .341/.407/.690 with 10 home runs in his final 34 games.

Trout and Harper, who picked up a lone 10th-place vote for NL MVP that season, were expected to emerge as full-blown superstars and MVP candidates in 2013. Instead, Harper battled through two injury-plagued seasons while Trout continued to post MVP-worthy seasons. In May of that year, Harper suffered multiple minor injuries from running into outfield walls and missed time with bursitis in his left knee. Though he only missed a month, his left leg wasn’t right for the remainder of the season, leading to off–season surgery to repair the bursa sac in that knee. In 2014, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb sliding into third base on a triple on April 26, losing two months to the DL, and didn’t fully recover from the injury until the season was over.

In 2015, his first major accomplishment was staying healthy. Harper missed two consecutive games just once all season, that due to a minor hamstring strain in late June, and started 152 of the Nationals’ 162 games on the season, a career high. With his talent and 1,489 major league plate appearances under his belt coming into the season, health was all that separated Harper from super-stardom, and he proved it early.

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Harper came out of the gate with a drastically improved plate approach, drawing 22 walks in April, 17 of them unintentional, and finishing the month with a .440 on-base percentage. Harper also hit five home runs and slugged .545, but that was nothing compared to what was to come. On May 6, he hit three home runs against the Marlins. In his next game, against the Braves two days later, he hit two more, driving in five runs for the second consecutive game. He hit another round-tripper the next day as well to give him six home runs in a three-game span, then hit seven more over the remainder of the month to bring his season line to .325/.469/.724 by the end of May. Harper seemed to have nowhere to go from there but down, but he hit .370 in June, and the .314/.444/.467 line he put up from July 20 through the end of August was as close to a slump as he got prior to the season’s final weeks.

With the Nationals sinking dangerously close to a .500 record as the calendar flipped to September, Harper went on another home run barrage, hitting 10 in 15 games from Sept. 4 to 19. At the end of play on Sept. 20, Harper was hitting .343/.470/.674. He slumped badly over his final 11 games, but still managed to finish the season with a spectacular .330/.460/.649 line. His on-base percentage and 1.109 OPS were the best by a qualified hitter since 2008 and his 195 OPS+ the best by a qualified hitter since Barry Bonds’s final season in 2004.

Harper also led the NL in home runs with 42, took the extra base on a teammate’s hit in 57% of his opportunities (compared to a league average of 39%) and graded out as more than half a win above average in the field according to Defensive Runs Saved and Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average. He did all of that despite being 10 months younger than NL Rookie of the Year and fellow Las Vegas nativeKris Bryant.

By way of comparison, Donaldson wasn’t drafted until he was 21. An Alabama native, he was selected by the Cubs out of Auburn University with the 48th pick in the 2007 draft, a compensation pick for the loss of outfielder Juan Pierre to the Dodgers. A catcher of questionable defensive aptitude, he raked in low A over the remainder of the 2007 season but slumped as a 22-year-old in A ball the next year and was shipped to the Athletics as part of a six-player trade that brought injury-prone righthander Rich Harden to Chicago. Again, Harper was 22 this past season.

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Donaldson’s bat recovered in Oakland's system, where he also got his first professional exposure at the infield corners, but it wasn’t until his age-26 season in 2012 that he got his first extended exposure in the major leagues. The A’s intended to have former Tigers prospect Scott Sizemore be their everyday third baseman that season after a solid showing in 2011, but Sizemore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in spring training, resulting in an open casting call at the hot corner. Donaldson and Eric Sogard were the initial winners of that competition, opening the season in a rough platoon, but when the slick-fielding Brandon Inge (another former Tiger) returned from a spring training groin injury in late April, he was handed the job. Donaldson—who managed just three hits, all singles, in his first 32 plate appearances that season—was demoted to Triple A. Donaldson got a brief opportunity when Inge suffered another groin injury in May, but again the rookie struggled at the plate and returned to the minors until mid-August, when Inge suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

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Splitting his time between catcher and third base, Donaldson got his bat started again in Triple A, and when he was called back up, he was ready. Installed at third base on Aug. 14 and heeding the encouragement of leftfielder Jonny Gomes, Donaldson hit .290/.356/.489 with eight home runs over the remainder of the season as the A’s shocked baseball by surging past the Rangers to claim the AL West crown. The next year, Donaldson established himself as one of the best players in baseball, finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting for a season in which he hit .301/.384/.499 (145 OPS+) with 24 home runs and 93 RBIs and proved to be an excellent defensive third baseman. In 2014, he hit 29 home runs, drove in 98 runs, made his first All-Star team and finished eighth in the MVP voting.

Arbitration eligible for the first time last winter, Donaldson was traded by the rebuilding A’s to the Blue Jays for a four-player package built around infielder Brett Lawrie and shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto. It didn’t take a ton of insight to figure out that Donaldson’s numbers would likely improve with the move from the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum to the homer-friendly Rogers Center, but Donaldson’s numbers this season were still remarkable. Primarily batting second in what was by far the most productive lineup in baseball, Donaldson led the majors with 122 runs scored and the AL with 123 RBIs and 352 total bases, and set career highs in hits (184), doubles (41), home runs (41), slugging percentage (.568), OPS (.939), OPS+ (155) and Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (8.8).

I was among those who thought Trout—who joins Bonds, Yogi Berra and Musial as the only players to finish in the top two in the MVP voting four years in a row—was more deserving of the AL MVP this year. In fact, he should have won it in each of the last four years, which also happen to be his only four full major league seasons. But it’s difficult to begrudge Donaldson this year’s honor given his outstanding all-around play (did I mention he was thrown out on the bases just three times all year?).

Donaldson’s path to the MVP award sends a strong message about resilience, determination and making the most of one’s opportunities, and it will be fascinating to see where both players’ careers go from here. Donaldson will turn 30 in December, has two team-controlled years remaining and is likely to get a massive raise via arbitration this year. He might not be the wisest extension investment, however, as his late blooming and all-out style of play suggest an early decline. Harper, meanwhile, continues to hold seemingly unlimited potential provided he can remain healthy; it would be shocking if this proved to be his only MVP award. If Harper can do what he did this season at the age of 22, I can’t wait to see what he does next.