Repeat of magical 2015 not out of reach for Jays’ Donaldson

Sportsnet Central host Hazel Mae sits down with 2015 American League MVP Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson to get his reaction to winning the award and the Jays season.

When Josh Donaldson was named the American League MVP Thursday it seemed to cement 2015 as his career year. After all, it’s hard to beat a season where you set career highs in home runs, runs, RBI, slugging percentage and total bases while winning the top individual award in the sport.

The smart money suggests players fall off after MVP-type years because even superstars regress to the mean. It’s the reason that there is a “curse” attributed to athletes appearing on the cover of Madden or Sports Illustrated. They are captured at their pinnacles only to find that staying on top is as hard as reaching the summit. Many are capable of having magical seasons, but only the all-time greats can be the best over and over again.

For this reason it’s tempting to assume that Donaldson will fall back to earth in 2016. He produced at an unprecedented level last season at an age, 29, where time starts working against him. However, that assumption only holds up if we consider 2015 to be an anomaly for Donaldson. While his counting stats did undoubtedly skyrocket, a deeper look shows he was the almost exactly same hitter he’s been since his breakout season in 2013.

The first way this is apparent is his approach at the plate, where his discipline numbers with the Toronto Blue Jays last season and the Oakland Athletics the previous two are very similar.

Years (Outside the Zone) Swing% (Inside the Zone) Swing% Total Swing % Contact%
2013-2014 25.9% 66.5% 44.2% 78.2%
2015 25.9% 70.7% 46.5% 76.0%

Donaldson was slightly more aggressive on pitches in the zone in 2015 than he’d been in the past, but the difference was minor. His batted-ball profile was also remarkably consistent with his track record.

Years Line Drive Percentage Ground Ball Percentage Fly Ball Percentage Infield Fly Percentage
2013-2014 17.0% 44.6% 38.3% 9.6%
2015 17.3% 44.8% 37.9% 10.4%

The Blue Jays third baseman’s approach did not change in a meaningful way, nor did the way the ball came off his bat, so it’s worth asking where all the extra home runs, runs and RBI came from. As it turns out, they were largely due to his change of address.

Hitting in Oakland was a nightmare for Donaldson, as it is for any power hitter, and his new digs suited him perfectly. His numbers at home while solid in 2013 and 2014, but they were absolutely outstanding in 2015. In fact, in Donaldson’s debut season at Rogers Centre he produced about as much at home as he did the previous two years at the Coliseum combined.

2013-2014 157 78 24 90 .263 .345 .458
2015 81 74 24 69 .330 .390 .647

Meanwhile on the road in a variety of the league’s ballparks his production was actually a bit worse.

2013-2014 .291 .380 .496 .876 146
2015 .263 .343 .487 .830 128

None of this information is meant to discredit the year Donaldson had. He’s not an undeserving MVP because of these splits. If anything it shows that he was probably under-appreciated in the past. Moving to a more favourable environment just helped him showcase the talents he always had and produce power numbers that far surpassed his previous career highs.

Entering 2015 Donaldson had already been an MVP candidate for two consecutive seasons, and probably deserved stronger consideration for his work in Oakland. This past year was undoubtedly his best, but despite the flashy counting stats he wasn’t doing anything differently, simply reaping the benefits of a friendly park and a formidable lineup. There’s no reason to believe he can’t do that again.

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