The unfair stigma around Josh Donaldson’s health

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As we all wait to see if the Dodgers actually make a free-agent splash this winter, the prospect of Josh Donaldson becomes more intriguing and enticing.

But what I’m having trouble with is a large swath of Dodger fans who are overly leery of a Donaldson signing. The most common comparison/complaint is that he’s A.J. Pollock 2.0. That’s simply not true and prompted this tweet from yours truly. He’s a superior player to Pollock (always has been) and, just as importantly, a healthier player than Pollock.

When the Dodgers signed Pollock last winter, he was coming off a season in which he played 113 games. He was effective in those games (2.6 WAR, 111 wRC+), but durability has always been a concern with him. At the time of the signing, Pollock had averaged 101 games played in his six full seasons with the Diamondbacks.

Donaldson, however, is not in the same boat. Yes, he missed almost 100 games in 2018 due to shoulder inflammation and an acute calf strain, but even with that, he has shown to be healthier than not in his career. He has averaged 136 games in his full seasons (doesn’t include 14 games in 2010 and 75 games in 2012). Last season, he played 155 games and finished with a healthy .259/.379/.521 batting line with a 132 wRC+.

For comparison, Justin Turner has averaged 129 games a season since 2015 (when he became the Dodgers’ full-time third baseman), yet people don’t share similar concerns with his durability that they do with Donaldson’s. I get why (familiarity, money, etc.), but Donaldson is an elite-level player who fits many teams, including the Dodgers.

It’s all but assured the Dodgers are planning to play Turner at first base a lot next season, which is why they’re interested in Donaldson and Anthony Rendon. Rendon figures to get a huge deal — perhaps $30-35 million per season for 6-7 years. If the Dodgers could get Donaldson for three years at $25 million a season and get 80-90 percent of what Rendon would give them, that might make more sense overall (and allow them to pursue another big-time player since they’re seemingly hellbent on staying under the luxury tax).

Cody wrote about the Dodgers’ reported interest in him a couple weeks ago.

The Dodgers didn’t struggle for offensive production at third base in 2019 (as I touched on yesterday). Justin Turner (.290/.372/.509/.881) matched Donaldson’s 132 wRC+ in 2019 (his own age 34 season), though he did so in 110 fewer plate appearances. A lower walk rate for Turner (9.3%) than Donaldson (15.2%) was balanced out by Turner putting more balls in play (16.0 K%) to Donaldson (23.5 K%). Most of those numbers fell in line with their recent career production, though Donaldson’s strikeout rate the past three years is significantly higher than it was from 2012-16. (Also worth noting, Donaldson’s 76.6% contact rate on balls inside the strike zone was the second-lowest among 135 qualified batters.)

This isn’t meant to disparage Turner. He’s one of the best right-handed hitters in the National League. But his defense took a step back last season so much that the Dodgers are seriously considering making him, primarily, a first baseman.

While Rendon is clearly a more complete hitter than Donaldson, Donaldson brings has his own positives. There’s some swing and miss in his game, but he also has massive power, hits the ball hard and does it consistently.

As noted in the tweets, Donaldson is a better defender than Rendon. He finished second to platinum glove winner Matt Chapman in defensive runs saved and has consistently been a plus-defender at the hot corner.

And if you’re worried about how Donaldson is projected to age, Craig Edwards touched on that at FanGraphs earlier today.

If we want to paint a broad brush, we’d say Josh Donaldson is an infielder with a good bat, decent defense, star-level play in his past, and is coming off a very good season. As we can see above, similar players have fared fairly well into their mid-30s. The group above averaged a 117 wRC+ and roughly three wins per season from 34 years old through 36 years old, which is the period of a three-year deal for Donaldson. I ran a similar test removing Donaldson’s 7.6-WAR season at age 30 and still got roughly the same results. When we are dealing with the long-term future and deals of five years or more, age can be very important. When we are talking about the short term and just the next few years, present production trumps age. Josh Donaldson was really good in 2019 and that means he’s very likely to be really good in 2020 and pretty good for a couple years thereafter. Josh Donaldson bet on himself and now he just needs a team to make the good bet on him.

Sure, it’d be nice to just sign Rendon to a 7-year deal and get his age-30-33 seasons, as well as his age 34-36 seasons (because he’s projected to age well, too), but there would be competition stiff competition and we’ve yet to see Andrew Friedman (with Mark Walter and Stan Kasten’s blessing) sign any free agent for longer than five years.

By the time a hypothetical 3-year deal for Donaldson ends, Kody Hoese and/or Miguel Vargas could be ready to step in at third (the former probably sooner than the latter). What’s clear is Turner is not the Dodgers’ long-term third baseman (and that’s fine) and LA is looking to upgrade as a whole. With most positions filled with incumbents, signing a guy like Donaldson and shifting Turner could be an overall boost to the team.

Despite being “a bit of an acquired taste,” the Donaldson interest makes sense. If there’s one elite-level free agent the Dodgers will sign this offseason, I’d bet on it being him.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.