Josh Donaldson's slump is not over, but it's not crippling, either
Normally, when the player leading the league in Wins Above Replacement picks up a fourth-inning single in a lopsided game, it's not news. When Josh Donaldson brought home Craig Gentry with a two-out single off Yankees rookie Jose Ramirez to extend the Athletics' lead to 10-0 on Sunday, however, it was news. That's because that hit snapped an 0-for-32 skid as well as a stretch of 31 consecutive plate appearances by Donaldson that resulted in outs. Donaldson got another hit on Monday against the Rangers, but it seems safe to say that he's still mired in that slump. Donaldson is just 2-for-9 in those last two games, 3-for-45 (.067) with 13 strikeouts in his last 11 games, and has gone nine games without a walk (38 PA) or an extra-base hit (42 PA).
To put that in perspective, the only other players in the 21st century to have more consecutive plate appearances resulting in outs than Donaldson's 31 were Andy Fox (40 in 2004), Joe McEwing, Brad Ausmus, and Willy Taveras (34 in 2002, 2006, and 2009, respectively), and Wil Nieves (33 from 2005 to 2007). Those five players hit a collective .216/.268/.275 in 1,285 plate appearances over those seasons and .253/.318/.339 in their combined careers. Donaldson, even this deep into his slump, is hitting .249/.334/.484 on the season and is a .270/.346/.466 hitter for his career.
The contrast between Donaldson's status as an MVP candidate this season and his extreme futility makes his slump all the more compelling. Indeed, Donaldson was red-hot before the slump began on June 5 with an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts against the Yankees (that's the first of those last 11 games mentioned above; his out-streak began two days later). In the 20 games leading up to June 5, Donaldson hit .338/.449/.757 with nine home runs and 15 walks against 16 strikeouts. On June 4, he went 3-for-5 with a home run. He has just three hits in 45 plate appearances since.
That sudden change in performance is additionally alarming given how similarly sudden Donaldson's emergence as a star third baseman was. A minor league catcher who had appeared in 27 games at third base in Triple-A in 2011, Donaldson was part of Oakland's desperate attempt to fill the hot corner in early 2012 in the wake of Scott Sizemore's ACL injury. Donaldson hit just .141/.140/.235 in 24 starts at the position in April and May of that year, with a demotion in the middle of that performance. In June, he appeared in just four games, none of them at third base. He then spent two more months in Triple-A. When he returned, he was a 26-year-old with a .156/.206/.281 line in 134 career plate appearances in the major leagues. He then hit .290/.356/.489 over the remainder of the season (194 PA) and .285/.366/.493 with 49 home runs in 1,176 plate appearances from August 2012 to today.
Sample size alone tells us that Donaldson's star-level performance is the real one. That's further supported by the similarity between that line and his .275/.365/.470 career minor league mark, which includes a .270/.354/.486 performance at Triple-A with 48 home runs in 1,085 PA. That's who Josh Donaldson is as a hitter. So where did that guy go over the last 11 games?
Into the ground. That's not a metaphor for the drop in his performance — he literally can't stop hitting the ball into the ground. In 2013, 44 percent of Donaldson's balls in play were groundballs. Since June 5, Donaldson has put 32 balls in play (including home runs and foul outs) and 23 of them, an astounding 72 percent, have been groundballs. Of Donaldson's 47 plate appearances since June 5, 77 percent have ended in a groundball or a strikeout, but as his slump has progressed, the groundballs have emerged as the larger problem. In the first six games of the slump, Donaldson struck out 11 times in 28 PA and hit 10 groundballs (59 percent of balls in play on the ground). Since then he has struck out just twice in 19 PA, but hit 13 more groundballs (76 percent of balls in play). In his last 15 PA, only twice did he avoid a strikeout or groundball. One of those at-bats resulted in a pop-out behind home plate, the other a flyball to shallow rightfield.
Included among all of those groundballs are both of his singles this week, which is why we can still consider this slump active. Donaldson hasn't hit a line drive since last Friday, which was also the last time he hit a ball as far as one of the opposing outfielders.
So how is this guy still leading the American League in WAR? For one of the many reasons he's been so underrated over the last couple of years: He's an outstanding defensive third baseman. Donaldson's only 14th in the league in OPS+, but he has been worth two full wins above replacement in the field this season according to Defensive Runs Saved, the defensive metric used on Baseball-Reference.com and factored into their WAR statistic. That's the best dWAR score by any player in the majors this season, equaled only by Braves rightfielder Jason Heyward. Ultimate Zone Rating (used in FanGraphs' WAR, which ranks Donaldson third in the league behind Mike Trout and Alex Gordon) is similarly flattering, as are Fielding Runs Above Average over at Baseball Prospectus, whose Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) ranks Donaldson second in the AL behind only Trout. Given that, the A's, who have the best record in the league and a 4 1/2 game lead in their division, both second only to the Giants' in all of baseball, have no reason to contemplate a present or future without Josh Donaldson at third base beyond, perhaps, a day or two off to snap him out of whatever bad habits he has clearly gotten himself into. The drop in strikeouts is encouraging in its own way, and hopefully the two groundballs that found holes over the last two days and became hits will allow him to relax a bit more at the plate. In the big picture, Donaldson is still a valuable part of the team our staff unanimously considers the best team in baseball right now, and his track record strongly suggests that his bat will recover sooner or later. Of course, at this point, one could argue that it is already later.