Donaldson for MVP isn’t so far-fetched anymore

This past weekend, the Toronto Blue Jays swept the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game series, dominating the Halos by a combined score of 36-10. The series represented a few important points: not only did the three wins vault the Jays over the New York Yankees for sole possession of first place in the AL East, but it also featured a matchup of the current favorites in the AL MVP race, Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. While Trout went 3 for 10 during the series (all three hits coming in the series finale), Donaldson showed why he is beginning to be viewed as a possible contender for the league’s MVP, going 8 for 13 with a home run, four doubles and nine RBI.

Up until this season — even up until a month ago, in fact — the idea of Donaldson being a serious front-runner in an MVP race would have been viewed as very optimistic. He’s been in the conversation as one of the best overall position players in baseball since his breakout in 2013 (his 21.2 Wins Above Replacement since the start of the 2013 season is second only to Trout’s 25.2), but a strict comparison with Trout in the past probably would have been seen as a reach. That has little to do with Donaldson: Trout is the best player in baseball, and a normal year for Trout would be the best year of basically anyone else’s career.

Then this past offseason’s trade from Oakland to Toronto occurred, and Donaldson showed that the move to the Rogers Centre was most likely going to pay serious dividends for his statistics. Early on in this season, it became evident he might be tailoring his swing to pull more fly balls when he was playing at home, resulting in an astounding power increase that has showed no signs of slowing down in the ensuing months. His home/road splits are more pronounced than they ever have been, showing the influence of his home park’s friendliness to hitters — and his ability to exploit it:

HR ISO OPS wRC+
Home 20 .323 1.040 181
Away 14 .241 .866 140

His recent month-long power binge that has put him into the MVP race has been built on an extreme version of his 2015 adjustments: hit more fly balls, especially at home, while also aggressively pulling as many pitches as possible. Recently, he spoke to Eno Sarris about his approach — specifically in Toronto — and his quotes support the trends that we’ve highlighted:

“You get rewarded more for fly balls at the Rogers Centre,” Donaldson laughed. “Our turf is slow and you’re not going to get a lot from that. I’m not really a guy for ground balls anyway.”

In the past 30 days, Donaldson has hit 11 home runs with a .434 Isolated Power mark (league average for Isolated Power is around .140; the best sluggers are usually around .200-.280). His approach during that time reflects a hitter who has been crushing everything on the inside/middle of the plate. Take a look at his Isolated Power this season before this past month’s hot streak vs. during it (courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

Donaldson_Power

He’s been hitting middle, in, up — he’s even been hitting pitches low and away for power over the past month, a spot in which he has previously shown vulnerabilities. The dominance of the inside part of the plate leads directly to another element of the hot streak: the percentage of pitches he’s been hitting to left field. Let’s look at the rate of balls in play he’s pulled during the past month compared to the season as a whole, dividing them into overall (all balls in play), fly balls, and fly balls at the Rogers Centre:

Overall Pull % Fly Ball Pull % Home Fly Ball Pull%
Season 40.3% 22.9% 32.6%
Since 7/23 58.5% 50.0% 50.0%

This past month has underlined a simple strategy for Donaldson: look for pitches that he can hit hard to the pull side and try to get them in the air. That’s consistent with many temporary power surges for all types of hitters, and at some point Donaldson will cool off, with his approach reverting back to a more balanced state. However, the remarkable thing about Donaldson is this: even during a month in which he’s pulled almost 60% of his total balls in play, the Jays third baseman still has the ability to do damage when going to the opposite field. This home run off of Nathan Eovaldi in early August illustrates why he is so difficult to pitch to, and I’ve paused on the frame in which he makes contact so we can better see exactly where the pitch was:

Donaldson_Opposite_HR

Even though the ball barely got out of Yankee Stadium (this wouldn’t have been a home run in any other stadium in the majors, per HitTrackerOnline), the fact remains: pitching Donaldson inside for the past month hasn’t worked, and neither has pitching him outside. He’s the rare breed of hitter that blends elite pull power with elite opposite-field power, and he’s excelled at both of those skills over the past 30 days.

The impact of Donaldson’s hot streak on the Blue Jays is obvious. Their FanGraphs playoff odds now stand at 96.3%, and their odds of winning the AL East are currently just under 58%. One player can only impact a team’s chances so much, but Donaldson has been the driving force behind the Toronto offense for the past month, and it’s not a coincidence that the team has gone 21-7 since July 23.

All else being equal, the MVP race may be heavily influenced by which team has success in the postseason. If the Angels miss out on a playoff spot (or are defeated in the Wild Card game), while the Blue Jays win their division, voters might view Donaldson’s contributions in a more favorable light than they do Trout’s — or vice versa. We sometimes don’t like to admit that these sorts of influences impact award voting, but our experience in the past says otherwise.

Quite recently, the idea of Donaldson winning an MVP over Trout was far-fetched — perhaps even delusional. Now, after a move to a more hitter-friendly home park and an incredible hot streak aided by a few adjustments, he is part of the conversation. How the two teams perform down the stretch could decide more than just who is going to the playoffs. The Jays are pushing for the win; so is Donaldson.