Here is my Thursday column on Josh Donaldson. WARNING: This is a baseball column. 49ers fans — feel free to skip this.
OAKLAND — Twelve hours after Josh Donaldson golfed a low slider over the left-field foul pole to beat the Tigers in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday night, Donaldson practiced putting into an empty pill bottle in the A’s clubhouse while wearing a green T-shirt that said “PANINI AMERICA” on the front in big white letters.
The Panini King wasn’t joking around early Thursday morning. He approached every putt like a professional golfer — the concentration, the head down, the practice swings, the whole deal. And he couldn’t miss. The man was locked in. Two hours before the A’s lost to the Tigers 5-4, Donaldson tapped golf balls in perfect straight lines across the clubhouse carpet with a silver-and-red putter he keeps in his locker.
In addition to being a terrific putter and the Primo Panini, Donaldson is the most important player on the A’s, the best baseball player in the Bay Area, the best third baseman in the majors and the best player at any position in the entire American League this season.
His WAR is 4.1, meaning he has given the A’s 4.1 more wins than a replacement-level player would have so far this season. WAR (“wins above replacement”) is a good way to measure a player’s value. Donaldson has the best WAR in the American League, meaning Donaldson should currently be a front-runner to win the AL MVP award. Only Rockies’ shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has a better WAR than Donaldson right now, and Tulowitzki plays in the National League.
Donaldson is the best player by far in the Bay Area. His WAR is more than four-times better than Buster Posey’s, who has given the Giants just one more win than a replacement level player would have so far this season.
Since 2013, Donaldson has the best WAR in the Majors — 12.1. Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout is second-best with a 12.0 WAR.
Bob Melvin sat in the A’s dugout an hour and a half before the first pitch and described what makes Donaldson special. “One of the key attributes for him other than being a talented player is his tenacity. The bigger the situation, a lot of time the better he gets. He loves being up in those situations.”
Donaldson is clutch. He has hit nine home runs with runners on base this season — best in the American League. And he has hit three home runs in the ninth inning – best in the majors.
Donaldson also is consistent, which is more important than being clutch. Including Thursday’s game, he has reached base safely in 47 of his past 48 games. Melvin platoons players and moves them up and down the batting order so much that you never know what the A’s lineup will look like, but you know Donaldson will hit third.
“He comes here to play every day,” A’s hitting coach Chili Davis said after the game. “That’s what you look for in your starting nine. You want guys who will come here and prepare physically and mentally to play every day. It’s a long year and guys get tired, but you’ve got to be able to grind through it and he does that well.”
Is that particularly important or impressive on a team where the manager platoons so many positions?
“It’s important,” said Davis. “I don’t look at it as being impressive. He’s doing his job, he enjoys doing his job and he doesn’t like being out of the lineup. He knows he’s a big part of our lineup, so he’s out there every day.”
Donaldson answered questions at his locker after the game wearing a black Panini America T-shirt. “I want to be one of those guys they can count on to grind every day,” he said. “It can be tough at times. It really puts Cal Ripken’s streak in perspective.”
Donaldson is the constant, stabilizing force in the A’s lineup and clubhouse. Ironic, considering he did not have a stable childhood. His mother raised him by herself because his father was incarcerated. Kids bullied Donaldson even in high school.
You’d never know that watching him before a game. He exudes nothing but stability and confidence. He doesn’t frantically work on his swing like he’s afraid he’s a fraud who might turn into a pumpkin at any moment.
The Primo Panini putts.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.