The Toronto Blue Jays acquired Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics for Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman and Franklin Barreto Friday, leaving the baseball world a bit baffled. The most common thesis I saw from the pundits, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed late that night, was “I don’t get it.”
The Occam’s Razor theory of the deal has become the begrudging consensus. The A’s, perpetually fighting for a new ballpark and hamstrung by penurious ownership until that worm finally turns, had to move on from Donaldson. He’s about to get expensive, and with their farm system thinned out by a few years of going all-in, the team had to reshuffle. Some of this is not so much speculation from without, as a direct statement from Billy Beane during the conference call announcing and discussing the trade. In essence, the deal is about money, and about Oakland’s inability to keep Donaldson and remain competitive by building a strong roster around him. They had to take this disappointing, unexciting return because making a deal became more important than making a really good deal, and that destroyed Beane’s leverage. Everyone understands. No one likes it, but everyone understands.
I don’t buy it. I’m on a bit of an unintentional contrarian streak lately, one that has me questioning my own wisdom, but I don’t see this deal that way. The A’s got a great deal here, as far as I’m concerned. and not because they made the best of a bad situation or because they had to do something. I like this specific trade, because I’m not at all sure that Josh Donaldson is a more valuable commodity than Brett Lawrie, and Lawrie isn’t even all the A’s got. Let me show my work.
Josh Donaldson: An Exercise in Endpoint Manipulation
Josh Donaldson is, by reputation, a superstar. He’s been a big-leaguer for just two full seasons, but in those two seasons, only Mike Trout has been obviously better than Donaldson. He is, at the very least, a 29-year-old with elite defensive skills at third base and four years of team control remaining—although he will collect an arbitration award in all four of those seasons. Most people also see him as a star-caliber offensive force, a patient hitter with power who strikes out fairly rarely. In fact, there’s no question whatsoever that Donaldson has been just that for some substantial segment of his career.
Part of the reason Donaldson is seen so favorably, though, is that he’s played just two full seasons, and one of them was positively transcendent, and the other, more recent one was very good itself. Seasons are arbitrary endpoints, though. Obviously, that’s not true when assessing player value in hindsight, nor in real time, because teams only have 162 games each season in which to capture value, and going 94-68 over 162 games is only valuable if those wins lead to a playoff push. That’s the goal, and there’s no reward for carrying momentum over from the previous season, once a new one starts.
When evaluating players, though, none of that should matter. Forecasting performance is about using previous performance, career comparisons, aging curves and other externalities to feel out a player’s true talent level going forward. Therefore, let’s take a non-seasonal look at the career of Josh Donaldson.
Donaldson has 1,691 career plate appearances, which is more than you might think. It’s made up of a brief, fruitless stint in 2010, a longer partial season in 2012 and the last two campaigns. Since becoming a regular, Donaldson has been remarkably durable, and has batted near the top of one of the better batting orders in baseball. That’s how the number got so high. In two full seasons and two far less than full ones, Donaldson has racked up three or four seasons’ worth of plate appearances.
Three Arbitrary Reconstructions of Josh Donaldson’s Career
Reconstruction #1: 500-500-499-192
Reconstruction #2: 191-498-501-501
Reconstruction #3: 564-565-562
Obviously, these are arbitrary endpoints in their own right. They’re meant only as a means of seeing him in a new light, not a damnation or a dismissal of the more traditional one. Still, this should give you pause, if you’re among those who think of Donaldson as a star. He might be one, and have just had a bad second half in 2014, but he also might not be one at all, anymore. He’s turning 29 this month. He was 26 and 27 when he was doing truly star-level things. It might well be that Donaldson is not going to be the guy he was from late 2012 through 2013, ever again.
A few quick notes on Donaldson, before we take on Lawrie:
- Donaldson has hit much, much better with men on base than with the bases empty during his career. It’s not merely about the defense moving out of optimal alignments, either. He’s struck out about 2.5 times to every walk with the bases empty, and more like 1.3 times for every walk with runners on. He also has much more power with men on. I’m not sure what that implies about Donaldson, but it feels significant.
- His career OPS against starting pitchers is .761. Against relievers, that bumps up to .886. Again, I’m not 100 percent sure what that means, but it sure is interesting.
- Against what Baseball-Reference categorizes as Power pitchers (those whose combined strikeout and walk rates rate among the highest third in the league), Donaldson is a .223/.326/.342 career hitter. Against Finesse pitchers (same thing, but the bottom third), he’s at .287/.354/.512. Huh.
- Let me switch to using 2014 splits alone, now, so that I can show you this:
Josh Donaldson, Batting Splits by Count, 2014
Okay, now I’m starting to see a picture here. You tell me whether or not I’m crazy. I see a hitter who takes a smart, focused approach into every at-bat. He doesn’t particularly like to hit from far ahead in the count, nor from behind in the count. He either find a pitch on which to pounce, an ambush opportunity of sorts, early in the count, or he looks to work a walk. As a result, guys with good stuff really can get him out. It’s just that not everyone has really good stuff, and those who don’t, Donaldson absolutely kills.
There’s nothing wrong with being this kind of hitter. I wonder, though, whether it’s a more fragile skill set, whether the league is figuring out how to make him uncomfortable, and whether that augurs badly for him.
Brett Lawrie: A Study in Profile
In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James considers Sammy Sosa by observing that two teams gave up on him, traded him away, before he broke out in 1993, his second season with the Cubs. James asks, rhetorically, whether those teams should have foreseen Sosa’s star turn, and then returns this: “Absolutely they should have. It was not inevitable that he would become a star, but it was always at least a 50/50 shot, and baseball men should have known it. … There are few examples on record of players who were regulars at age 20 who didn’t become stars.”
Unlike Sosa, Brett Lawrie was not a regular at age 20. He didn’t reach MLB until age 21. Once there, though, Lawrie hit the cover off the ball. In 171 plate appearances, he had a 153 OPS+. Since 1961, that’s the ninth-best OPS+ by any first-year player with at least 150 plate appearances. Remove first basemen, corner outfielders and designated hitters, and it’s the third-best. Go back to 1914, allow all players at all positions again, and it’s still the 14th-best. Lawrie showed a truly special offensive upside that season, needing no time to adjust—although one could argue that pitchers simply never had a chance to adjust to Lawrie, either.
Indeed, in the seasons since, pitchers appear to have made some adjustments, and Lawrie has not revisited that excellent offensive showing. He was below average at the plate in 2012 and 2013, and that was in nearly 1,000 plate appearances. He crept back to average in 2014, but in only half a season of playing time. Injuries have been a constant barrier to his development, and while most of them have been freak incidents, something more than time is lost each time Lawrie hits the DL these days. He becomes less explosive, has more work to do to get back to where he was, and has less margin for error.
On the other hand, the upside in Lawrie is not gone. Before 2014, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system gave as his top comparable players: Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitzki and David Wright. The year he had was uninspiring, and he can no longer be expected to follow in those players’ footsteps, but if he finds a way to stay healthy, he remains a terrific breakout candidate. Through age 24. Lawrie has a 104 career OPS+, and (thanks to sterling defensive work at third base, in his own right) 11.7 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. To put those figures into perspective:
Career PA, OPS+, WAR, through age 24
I suspect that the inclusion of either of the other two players above in a Donaldson deal would have been considered a coup. Obviously, Perez is on an extraordinarily team-friendly deal, and Machado is a year behind Lawrie on the road to free agency, and two and a half years younger. That’s why neither player would have been available to Beane and the A’s. Still, that’s the level of asset about which we’re talking. Beane may have only a few years to avail himself of Lawrie, but it’s a good bet that he’ll be able to flip him for serious value if and when he needs to do so.
Let me just rattle off a few quick notes on Lawrie, before moving on to the next part of this piece:
- In 2012 and 2013, Lawrie’s isolated power hovered (disappointingly) around the league average. The problem was too many ground balls, and too few flies. In 2014, though, he saw his ISO leap to .174, a solidly above-average number, thanks to a fly-ball rate near 40 percent, and a 14.5-percent home-run rate on those flies. If that caught Oakland’s eye, it likely made them even more eager to nab Lawrie, because they have been fly-ball crazy over the past few seasons.
- Lawrie’s career strikeout rate is 16.4 percent. There is no player in baseball who can be fairly analyzed, these days, without considering whether a sudden strikeout scourge may befall them. Lawrie seems a safe bet not to run into that set of problems, at least.
- Lawrie’s spray chart for 2014, in particular, is very strange. He went the other way a fair bit, but had absolutely zero luck doing so. His BABIP on 76 batted balls that direction was a ghastly .141. There were a fair few pop-ups and lazy fly balls mixed in, but that still seems like a statistic on which Lawrie should enormously improve in 2014.
The Righty-Lefty Implications
This is where things get weird, because we’re about to break down the platoon splits for Donaldson and Lawrie, and there couldn’t possibly be a more stark contrast between them.
Remember, as you review the lines below, that Donaldson has an .805 career OPS, and Lawrie has a .748 career mark:
Career Statistics v RHP
That’s right. Against right-handed pitchers, Brett Lawrie has been a better hitter than Josh Donaldson, over the course of their careers. In case you’re wondering if the players’ divergent career arcs are distorted when using career stats, Donaldson had a .727 OPS against right-handed hurlers in 2014. Lawrie had a .760 OPS against them.
Donaldson has a career line of .289/.372/.581 against left-handed pitchers. Lawrie is at .265/.311/.402. In essence, Donaldson has one of the largest observed platoon splits, among regulars, of any right-handed batter in baseball, and Lawrie actually has a reverse split—although not in so many plate appearances that we would expect it to hold up.
Right-handed pitchers pitched to 73.2 percent of all the batters who stepped to the plate in 2014. That’s the ninth-highest share of the workload right-handers have ever shouldered in a season. In 73.2 percent of all situations last year, without adjusting for ballpark factors, Brett Lawrie would have been a better player to send to the plate than Josh Donaldson, even with Donaldson posting far superior overall numbers and Lawrie seemingly struggling to develop. The American League has figured out Donaldson’s profiled, too” He had the platoon advantage in just 26 percent of his plate appearances in 2014, after having it 30 and 31 percent of the time over the two previous seasons. Lawrie has seen righties more often each season, and faced southpaws in only 23 percent of his times up in 2014.
Now, of course, there’s a caveat to that. The difference between Lawrie and Donaldson when facing righties is fairly small, susceptible to being swallowed by variance within a given season. The difference between them against lefties is vast, unexplainable by anything other than a difference in talent, and certain to show up clearly over almost any stretch or sample. We ought not to dismiss any kind of value, and ought never to overrate finding value of a certain shape or typology.
That said, Oakland is a team of matchup plays. They won division titles in 2012 and 2013, and reached the Postseason in 2014, by being willing to call upon all 25 roster spots. Because they can’t afford superstars (like the one Donaldson grew into), they rely on having an incremental advantage over the competition in every single plate appearance more than most teams do. Lawrie actually advances that goal more than Donaldson does, even if he can’t deliver the concentrated jolt Donaldson does whenever a southpaw is forced to face him.
The Other New Athletics: Replenishing the Stock
I don’t know if all of that minutiae explained away the difference between Donaldson and Lawrie. Probably not. Donaldson is the better player, and will likely stay that way at least through 2016, though I’m less willing to concede that than most. Although it seems like the A’s needed to make this move, what ultimately led them to pull the trigger has to have been the sweetness of Alex Anthopoulos’s sweeteners.
During the 2014 season, Beane traded away both Dan Straily and Tom Milone. Straily was a prospect born of performance, an unimpressive physical specimen with unimpressive stuff who put up more-than-impressive numbers all the way up the minor-league ladder, and even thrived with the parent club for a time. He scuffled in 2014, though, and as Beane tried to capture the fading value of the team’s positional core, he felt he had to move Straily to get important deals done. Milone was similar, a control guy who gave up too many fly balls but survived for a while in spite of that fact, but who became utterly expendable by the end of the team’s July pitching-acquisition spree. They were just spare arms, really, back-of-the-rotation starters with little upside and some real risk of implosion, if they ever lost their focus or precision.
Even so, it hurt to lose them, because the A’s once had a bountiful stockpile of those guys, and it was exhausted by those last couple moves. Getting Jed Lowrie from Houston had cost them Brad Peacock. Blake Treinen was a throw-in in the deal that netted John Jaso. The inventory wore thin. In this trade, Beane got solid off-brand versions of both Straily and Milone back, helping reestablish the depth and sustainability of Oakland’s pitching staff. Sean Nolin is a lefty who should stick at the back end of the rotation. Kendall Graveman has a very good sinker, and could use it either as a fringy starter or in a very successful move to middle relief. Using the ballpark and trusting the defense have allowed the A’s to prevent runs at a competitive rate without spending their resources on pitchers. These acquisitions keep that going.
There was no way Beane was going to replace everything he traded away in July, and although he currently plays Addison Russell’s old position, Franklin Barreto should not be viewed as anything like a Russell replacement. He’s unlikely to stick at shortstop, and while he might have something like Russell’s offensive ceiling, he’s a much longer way from realizing that potential. Barreto might just replace Billy McKinney, though. McKinney was the other prospect Oakland sent to the Cubs in order to land Jeff Samardzija, and is a bat-first, top-100 level outfield prospect. Barreto, like McKinney, has shown preternatural ability to square up and drive the ball against older competition. McKinney will be 20 for most of next season, and could play at Double-A. Barreto will be 19 all year, and should be sent straight to full-season Single-A. Both are impressive. Barreto even has a bit more upside. Baseball America ranked Barreto first among all the Latin American signees in the 2012 international free-agent class, and he’s done nothing to tarnish that pedigree. Getting him to co-headline the deal reflects the huge perceived difference between Donaldson and Lawrie, which (as I hope I’ve demonstrated) doesn’t actually exist.
There are reasons to like this trade for Toronto. They now have a very formidable set of power hitters in the middle of their lineup, and a good overall positional core—Donaldson and Russell Martin each add considerable defensive value, in addition to their offensive production. Donaldson is one of the 10 best players in baseball, even if I don’t happen to think he’ll stay that way. The Blue Jays clearly believe in him, and therefore, must feel very good about the acquisition. I’ll just say, once more, that I prefer it for Oakland, and particularly love the way Beane checked boxes off in the process of saving money and shifting asset value.
A huge thank you to Baseball-Reference, without whom (and especially, without whose Play Index) very little good baseball writing would be possible. This piece was more than usually reliant upon it, which is saying a lot.Next post: Nelson Cruz, Yasmani Grandal and Gregor Blanco: Three Quick Takes on Monday’s Big Names
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