A History of Josh Donaldson in Foul Territory

If a person came up to you and made the claim that Josh Donaldson was the best player in baseball, you would actually have to refute his or her case with legitimate evidence. If someone said Rajai Davis was the best player in the league, you could just roll you eyes and get on with your day, but Josh Donaldson is close enough to the top of the list that a counter-argument is required. Is he a better player than Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, or even Bryce Harper? Probably not, but he’s worth considering.

He’s worth considering, in large part, because he’s a great hitter. Donaldson ranks 18th in wRC+ since 2013 (min. 500 PA) at 140. An average defensive third baseman with a 140 wRC+ is something like a 6 WAR player over a full season. But, as I’m sure you know, Donaldson is not an average defensive third baseman. He’s one of the very best.

On Monday, he did this:

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His range is excellent. If you’ve watched him play regularly this is obvious, but the metrics support the claim, giving him 38 DRS and 31.5 UZR at third since 2013 (3,337 ? innings). If you call 1,458 innings a full season, that means Donaldson has played roughly like a +15 defender at third over the last two and a half years. If you trust the metrics, Donaldson is great. Also, if you a person who watches him play, you probably think he’s great.

Among his many virtues in the field, Donaldson seems extremely apt at ranging into foul territory. My immediate recollections of his best plays all seem to include him tracking popups to his right. That’s a memory bias, but it’s one grounded in reality to some extent. Using the magic of our Inside Edge fielding data, I’ve pulled out the seven Donaldson foul-territory plays since 2013 (not counting the one above) that were scored Remote, Unlikely, or Even. Observe:

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Let’s relive Donaldson’s trips into foul territory.

April 20, 2013

  • Inning: 4th
  • Inside Edge Rating: Even
  • WPA: .019
  • Victim: Evan Longoria

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Right off the bat, you wonder if Inside Edge is shortchanging Donaldson. If you drew this play on a map, maybe it’s not incredibly difficult, but not only did he have to enter the bullpen to make the play, he also had to deal with three relievers and the ball boy “getting out of the way.” It’s a tough play made more difficult by obstacles.

June 30, 2013

  • Inning: 4th
  • Inside Edge Rating: Even
  • WPA: .042
  • Victim: Matt Carpenter

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This play has two important difficulties. First, Donaldson is fight the sun. You can see him shielding his eyes right away and fighting to track the ball. You’re not really supposed to run with your glove up like that, but he doesn’t have much of a choice. The actual catch isn’t tricky beyond the sun, the problem is that despite the spacious foul territory in Oakland, he ran out of space a step and a half after he closed his glove on the ball. Holding onto the ball and not shattering most of his bones is what makes this one tough, but you can understand why Inside Edge didn’t grade it as a more difficult play.

July 14, 2013

  • Inning: 7th
  • Inside Edge Rating: Unlikely
  • WPA: .022
  • Victim: Jacoby Ellsbury

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Here, Donaldson is fighting the angle. It’s not an impossible distance and he doesn’t have to worry about barriers getting in his way, but the ball is hit right over his head and he can’t get a good angle on it. If he was an outfielder and had the benefit of time, he’d turn his back and run to a spot. Yet he’s an infielder without much time, so he had to attempt to run after the ball while looking straight back.

July 30, 2013

  • Inning: 2nd
  • Inside Edge Rating: Even
  • WPA: .020
  • Victim: Adam Lind

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Much like the earlier play on the tarp, this one isn’t that tough relative to the others. He had to get moving to get to the ball, but it’s an easy path to the ball, he can watch it the entire way, and he doesn’t have to avoid another defender. His only challenge is gathering the ball and holding on as he comes into contact with the tarp. A tough play, to be sure, but clearly a play you can imagine most good third basemen making.

September 3, 2013

  • Inning: 6th
  • Inside Edge Rating: Remote
  • WPA: .006
  • Victim: David Murphy

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Okay, now we’re talking. This one is off the charts and Inside Edge agrees. From a pure distance standpoint, it’s tough but fair. Donaldson actually slows down a bit as he gets to the warning track because he got a good enough jump on the ball that he might have been able to catch it standing up if there wasn’t all that stuff in his way. The real brilliance of the play is his ability to leap over the tarp and land between the tarp and the wall while holding on. Most good third basemen could get to the tarp and a few of them could make the necessary leap, but doing both of those and landing with the ball is something else.

July 5, 2014

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This play is a lot like the previous play except you trade a lot of time for a shorter leap. He doesn’t have to go over the tarp to make the play but he has to get there sooner, meaning there’s less room for error. Instead of running to the tarp and leaping, he has to go full speed to the ball with no regard for the collision. A tough play, but not the toughest we’ve seen.

June 24, 2015

  • Inning: 8th
  • Inside Edge Rating: Remote
  • WPA: .043
  • Victim: David DeJesus

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Given that this happened less than a week ago, it needs very little introduction. For the benefit of posterity, this catch occurred during a perfect game. Not only is the degree of difficulty very high, the importance of the moment is second to none. Even if the perfect game wasn’t on the table, it was a 0-0 game in the 8th inning, but the fact that every out pushed his pitcher closer to baseball immortality upped the ante. The whole thing is a delight, but the part you have to really acknowledge is how he keeps looking down to see how much room he has and when he’s going to have to leap. Several of the better third basemen could get to the wall on this play, but it takes a special skill to get to the wall in position to go flying into the stands. It’s amazing that he wasn’t hurt, and somehow, he caught the ball.

Inside Edge and Baseball Info Solutions don’t appear to track (or at least release) data on third basemen diving into the stands, but it seems like a safe bet that Josh Donaldson would rank very highly in Tarp Runs Saved. He has a lightning quick first step and does a terrific job maintaining awareness of the ball and terrain. Athleticism is part of it, but reaction and vision are critical too.

These are difficult plays to fold into a player’s profile because the opportunities are rare and the cost of failure is very different from failing at tough plays between the lines. If Donaldson dropped any of these, the pitcher gets another strike. If you miss a liner headed for the corner, the cost is much higher, even if the difficult is similar.

Perhaps these plays don’t mean that Donaldson is the best defender at his position, but they are certainly points in his favor. He’d be a star even if he was merely adequate with the glove. But as we know, he’s very good. In fact, if you’re someone who believes in extrapolation or on pace analysis, Donaldson’s next foul territory catch might involve dodging an usher or a hot dog vendor.



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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs. He is also the Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.


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