A prolific high school athlete, Donaldson took his catching talents to Auburn, where he posted solid if unremarkable freshman and sophomore campaigns before busting out in the Cape Cod League and carrying the production forward into a monster junior season. The production in his draft spring lifted him into the supplemental first round, where the Cubs grabbed him at slot, 48th overall. He profiled as an interesting bat-first catcher with enough athleticism and arm that he might just develop into an everyday guy back there. But after obliterating the Northwest League in the weeks following his signing, what followed subsequently were five years that – bracketing their culmination in a big-league debut – generally disappointed for their modest production and move down the defensive spectrum.
But along the way he got pretty good at playing third. And he added a leg kick. And his timing improved dramatically. And both his approach and contact skills, which had remained quite solid throughout, continued to remain quite solid as he started mashing the ball with much greater authority. And then, starting at age 27, he embarked on a run of four consecutive seasons (and counting) in which he has won an MVP, finished in the top-ten in each of the other three campaigns, and posted a TAv north of .300 in each. He was the top-earning third baseman in standard 5×5 leagues in 2015, and has been among the top four at his position in each season of the run.
What Went Right in 2016
Donaldson took his approach to the next level last year, boosting his walk rate by 50 percent. He took more pitches, staying patient when pitchers tried to take him out of the zone later in counts. He went from seeing 3.96 pitches every plate appearance in 2015, a rate that was 46th among qualified hitters, to seeing 4.22, good for 14th. Interestingly, most of those extra pitches were strikes, and his chase rate stayed constant. The extra strikes were overwhelmingly outside-corner strikes, and he rewarded his own discipline by absolutely pummeling elevated pitches and balls farther down in the zone, middle-in. His quality of contact was among the best in baseball, especially when he lifted the ball; he posted the fourth-highest exit velocity in the air of any hitter to log 200 balls. He again chipped in a handful of steals for good measure, adding “every little bit” value in a tough category to generate it. He continued to display remarkable durability, logging at least 155 games for a fourth straight year and cracking 220 R+RBI in back-to-back seasons.
What Went Wrong in 2016
The walk rate gains were offset by less base hits and a less potent lineup context, and the combination resulted in a wash in runs year-to-year, along with a regression of runs batted in. His standard-format value declined by a not-insignificant eight bucks, predominantly on the back of game-wide power depreciation and the modest raw counting stat regression. While he did stay on the field all season, he wore down notably in the second half, putting more balls on the ground and losing exit velocity oomph as the months rolled on. After steadily improving his ability to damage pitches up and in, the location proved something of a hole last year, raising at least the theoretical specter of early-onset bat speed decline for the 31-year-old.
What to Expect in 2017
The red flags raised above are worth noting, but Donaldson’s place among the game’s elite hitters does not appear to be in immediate jeopardy. I could throw some more numbers at it, but let’s pause for some prose instead: he has one of the most technically proficient understandings of advanced hitting mechanics in the game, and a fine-crafted swing that has evolved into one of the most lethal in the world. It’s a well-oiled, efficient swing type that tends to age well, and especially given the ongoing approach development, there is just a really, really strong baseline here for him to continue tapping into massive power this year. His current ADP of 12th overall is a reflection of the stability and consistency he has produced over the past several seasons, and while the shift in focal point from power to speed may give pause, those who still value locking down a high-end slugger as their cornerstone will do well to invest a late-first-round pick in Donaldson.
The Great Beyond
The Blue Jays bought out two years of Donaldson’s arbitration with a multi-year settlement for $28.65 million before last season, so he’ll play 2017 under the second year of that agreement. He’s a Super-Two guy with a fourth arbitration year awaiting on the back end of this deal as well, which translates to a near guarantee that he’ll remain in the friendly home confines of the Rogers Centre at least through 2018, before hitting free agency ahead of his age-33 season. He’s a career .309/.402/.611 hitter in Toronto, with 96 extra-base hits in just north of a full season’s worth of plate appearances. So… giddyup for the next two seasons. There will certainly be some contextual impact one way or another heading into 2019, which have the potential to exacerbate inevitable questions of age-related decline at that point. But for teams at or approaching the apex of their win curves, Donaldson’s value is that of an elite win-now asset.