San Francisco Giants

September 22, 2013

Ailene Voisin: A's Donaldson soars into MVP talk

Josh Donaldson is being mentioned among the candidates for the MVP and Gold Glove awards, and while he has no realistic shot at one (MVP) and a slim chance at the other (Gold Glove), this shouldn't preclude the A's from throwing a party for their own MVP.

OAKLAND – Josh Donaldson is being mentioned among the candidates for the MVP and Gold Glove awards, and while he has no realistic shot at one (MVP) and a slim chance at the other (Gold Glove), this shouldn't preclude the A's from throwing a party for their own MVP.

They wouldn't be here – postseason-bound for a second consecutive season – if their third baseman hadn't made that final, fateful right turn out of Raley Field.

This season there was no driving back. This is Donaldson's season of ascendancy, of locking down a job and a position that in past eras, when the franchise enjoyed some of its greatest success, the bloodline trickled down from Sal Bando to Carney Lansford to Eric Chavez.

Unless the A's do something completely stupid – say trade Donaldson because his value exceeds their budget – he is the next in line, a worthy and deserving heir. In his first full season in the major leagues, he leads the A's in every pertinent offensive category except home runs. His .306 batting average might even be mistaken for a misprint because few A's this decade even sniff .270. The last A's player to hit at least .300 with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title was Miguel Tejada in 2002 (.308).

Donaldson, 27, has been equally impressive in the field, his two recent errors notwithstanding. Backhanding sharp grounders down the line. Acrobatic dives into the seats. Lunging stabs to his left followed by lasers to nab runners at first.

While his power numbers can't touch leading MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera, and his competition for the Gold Glove includes Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado, Donaldson has thrust his way into the conversation.

Last week, USA Today's unique evaluation system gave the A's third baseman an exceptional rating. The accompanying headline cautioned readers: "Don't Forget Donaldson."

"I don't know if I'm in their class yet," Donaldson said of his more celebrated peers, "but I want to be."

A year ago, he recalled with a slight shake of his head, he wasn't even sure he had a future in Oakland. He was the Opening Day third baseman in 2012 because Scott Sizemore injured his knee, but he struggled at the plate and was sent down to Sacramento.

His prospects diminished even more when the A's acquired veteran Brandon Inge. But when Inge hurt his shoulder in mid-August and required season-ending surgery, Donaldson was called back up and placed in the lineup. He responded with steady, at times spectacular, defense and consistency at the plate. He hit .290 for the final two months of the regular season and .294 in the five-game American League Division Series with Detroit.

Nothing much has changed, which given Donaldson's difficult background is synonymous with ideal circumstances.

When he was 5 years old, his father, Levon, was sent to prison for 11 years on drug and domestic violence offenses. His mother, Lisa French, tended bar and audited company books to pay the bills. When her only child started having trouble at school, they left Pensacola, Fla., and moved to a suburb of Mobile, Ala., and enrolled Josh in Faith Academy.

His exceptional athletic abilities were quickly apparent. Though he's only 6 feet, he could easily dunk a basketball. Football was another hobby. He starred at wide receiver, but routinely lingered after games and practices to work on his baseball fundamentals.

"He would make me stay and hit him ground balls," said Lloyd Skoda, the school's longtime baseball coach. "I'd say, 'You're killing me, son.' He'd say, 'You want me to be good or not?' He just worked and worked. Even when he went to Auburn, he'd drive back over on weekends and spend hours in the batting cage.

"I told him he'd never make it if he didn't learn to hit a curveball. So what did he do? He just kept working till he learned to hit a curve."

Donaldson also flourished at a number of positions. He played second base and shortstop for Skoda, but was converted to catcher during his sophomore year in college. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2007 and a year later was acquired by the A's in the trade involving Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin.

"We knew Josh as a catcher," said A's bullpen coach Darren Bush, who managed Donaldson in the minor leagues. "But he always messed around and took ground balls, and we knew he was athletic enough to play the infield.

"When he was with us in Sac, we had two quality catchers (Donaldson and Anthony Recker), and there was an opportunity to get JD some time at third base. Once he started playing there exclusively, it was easy to see he was mobile enough to play there, to do some special things."

A muscular 220 pounds, Donaldson moves well to either side, and he has large hands and a soft glove. He also has a cannon for an arm and several other more nuanced attributes.

"His eyes," third-base coach Mike Gallego said. "That's what makes him so good at third. He can pick the ball up off the bat better than any infielder I've seen do in a long time. Every foul ball, every swing, every take, his eyes are focused on the hitting zone. Then when the ball is on the bat, he's got some quick twitch that prepares him for movement. And with his good hands and quick feet but it starts with the eyes."

Donaldson moves so fast sometimes, he can get ahead of himself. Bunts remain a sore spot.

"Trying to decide barehand or glove," Gallego said. "He's a master at backhanding, incredible going to his left. The chink in the armor is the bunt, even though he's already so much better than last year."

How much better can he become?

Donaldson is a tough self-critic who spends hours watching film and critiquing his mechanics. He credits his extensive studies and improved approach – coupled with greater patience – with his development as a more versatile and consistent hitter.

"The biggest adjustment is realizing I don't have to swing at every pitch that's a strike," he said. "In the big leagues, pitchers would try to manipulate me. I am able to dictate more now. I'm always going to be aggressive and take big cuts. People look at me and say, 'Hey, he swings really hard.' If I swing any easier, it's not me, though depending on the count, I will shorten up.

"I'm almost 28 now, been in pro ball a long time. I've gotten more comfortable with what I need to do. If I get my approach right, I think my chances for success are pretty good."

The awards will follow, eventually.

Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208. Follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.

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