From struggling minor leaguer to MVP, Donaldson’s career a rarity

In some seasons, the Most Valuable Player award is a close race between a few worthy position players with a pitcher thrown into the mix if the circumstances align. This year, in the National League, the voting was unanimous for the MVP, and for good reason. In the American League, there were only two serious candidates for the award, with one fact underlining that point: in MVP voting, each voter ranks players from one to 10, and this year in the AL, every ballot except for one had either Mike Trout or Josh Donaldson in first or second place.

Given that there were only two serious candidates in the AL, there was a fair amount of discussion about who was the worthier of the two players. It could be said this was a battle of statistics vs. context: a better statistical season (Trout) vs. the offensive lifeblood of a playoff-bound Toronto team (Donaldson). Defensively, Donaldson had a better season, but Trout was clearly superior on the offensive side of the ball. Here’s a look at their full stats side-by-side (wRC+ uses 100 as league average, while UZR is how many runs better the player was than a league average defender):

2015 AL MVP Race
  wRC+ (Offense) UZR/150 (Defense) WAR
Mike Trout 172 0.3 9.0
Josh Donaldson 154 9.8 8.7
SOURCE: FanGraphs

 

In the end, the context that is often added to the MVP award won out: Donaldson led his Toronto team to the playoffs after the club had endured a 22-year postseason drought, compiling an incredible offensive and defensive campaign in the process. There was no true right or wrong answer. Both players deserved it, and it was just a matter of opinion that separated them. Baseball is about winning games and Donaldson benefitted from being a key piece of a team that won more than Trout’s Angels.

It’s well-known who Donaldson is now. Less-known is who he was, and where he stands now among historical MVPs. Who he was is a huge part of the story, and his development into an MVP winner is a rarity.

Donaldson was drafted out of Auburn University in the first round of the 2007 amateur draft by the Chicago Cubs. He was selected as a catcher and played there his first two years in the minors. He struggled at the plate in ’08, leading to him being traded to the Oakland A’s for Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin.

In 2010 — when he was 24 years old — he got a cup of coffee in the majors. But he struggled in 14 games, was sent back to the minors, and didn’t return until 2012 when he started 74 games as the A’s won the AL West. By then he was 26, far past the point at which a first-round draft pick is considered a big "prospect." Donaldson wasn’t a bust, but his window to the majors was closing. Sent down for two months in the midst of the 2012 season, he came back to the majors in August as the Donaldson the majors know now. Something clicked during those two months with Triple-A Sacramento, and he never looked back.

For baseball players, 26 is around the age that players are normally expected to have either figured it out or not. For players who eventually win an MVP, 26 usually comes in the midst of an already above-average career. Donaldson is not only a late-bloomer in baseball terms; he is a rarity in terms of players who win MVPs. Here’s a chart displaying how many Wins Above Replacement every MVP since 1922 produced up until their 27th birthday:

WAR_Through_Age_26_MVPs

For the most part, through age 26, the majority of MVPs produce more than 10 WAR. There are the wunderkinds at the upper extreme of the plot, who — from top to bottom — are Mickey Mantle, Rogers HornsbyJimmie Foxx and Alex Rodriguez. There are the majority of players who were promoted to the big leagues sometime in their early 20’s and produced very successful seasons for a few years. Then there are the players at the other extreme, the ones who barely played in any major-league games before turning 27. That’s where Donaldson is, who played in only 87 games through 26, producing 1.2 WAR.

It would be easy to look at those points around Donaldson and think that this is unusual, but not anything wildly unnatural. Here is a table of the 15 players who at some point in their careers won an MVP, sorted by the fewest WAR produced through age 26:

Fewest WAR Through Age 26, MVPs, 1922-2015
Name WAR Through Age 26 Games Through Age 26
Maury Wills -0.1 83
Dazzy Vance -0.1 9
Jim Konstanty -0.1 0
Spud Chandler 0 30
Jackie Robinson 0 0
Ichiro Suzuki 0 0
Dolph Camilli 0.2 16
Hank Sauer 0.3 16
Frank McCormick 0.3 36
Josh Donaldson 1.2 89
Roy Campanella 1.6 83
Bucky Walters 1.6 238
Elston Howard 1.7 97
Willie Hernandez 2.2 227
Josh Hamilton 2.3 90
SOURCE: Fangraphs

 

Maury Wills was one of the best base stealers in history, and, like Donaldson, simply came into the league late. Dazzy Vance supposedly was dealing with an arm injury for many years before rediscovering his velocity in 1921; Jim Konstanty and Hank Sauer played during World War II, taking away years of baseball; Spud Chandler, Frank McCormick and Dolph Camilli toiled in the minors for years before a call up. Finally, there’s Ichiro Suzuki and Jackie Robinson, the former of whom had a successful career in Japan before winning an MLB MVP, while the latter broke MLB’s color barrier at age 28. All the way down the list, there is one of Donaldson’s only contemporaries, Josh Hamilton.

There’s a few common threads to the players that share this list with Donaldson. Almost all of them played at least 50 years ago, and most of them dealt with severe impediments on their path to the majors — whether it was addiction, racial segregation or World War II. Many do share Donaldson’s story of taking their time getting to the majors, but it’s less common than players who were unfortunate in terms of when they played. Here’s a look at the past 50 years, from 1965 to the present:

Fewest WAR Through Age 26, MVPs, 1965-2015
Name WAR Through Age 26 Games Through Age 26
Ichiro Suzuki 0 0
Josh Donaldson 1.2 89
Willie Hernandez 2.2 227
Josh Hamilton 2.3 90
Jason Giambi 3.7 336
Ken Caminiti 3.9 254
Jeff Kent 4.6 349
Kirk Gibson 5.4 343
Miguel Tejada 5.4 450
Mo Vaughn 6 450
Rollie Fingers 6.4 280
Terry Pendleton 7.8 534
Justin Morneau 8 569
Ryan Howard 8.4 266
George Foster 8.4 474
SOURCE: FanGraphs

 

Except for Ichiro, who played in Japan until he was 27, Donaldson is alone atop the list. He is a rarity among MVPs of the past half-century. He was not a wunderkind, moved through the minors slowly, and barely produced until after he turned 27. The incredible thing is how well he’s done after figuring it all out, moving almost immediately from a borderline major leaguer to an MVP-caliber player during the 2012 season.

Players who win MVPs don’t normally have only one good year. They’re usually gifted beyond "regular" major leaguers, move through the minors quickly, and start making an impact at a young age. But Donaldson isn’t a usual player, and he’s not a usual MVP. After his trade to Toronto, he started tailoring his swing to the Rogers Centre. He hit second in the order for most of the season in a productive offense. As the linchpin of his team, he helped bring a franchise its first postseason in two decades.

Donaldson’s MVP is special. Not because of who he is, but because of who he was; another 25-year-old minor leaguer trying to make it, trying to push that last little bit, knowing it might be their last shot at the show. Only a few years later — feared by many, admired by far more, and the AL’s Most Valuable Player — no one can tell Josh Donaldson he doesn’t deserve it.