I don’t really know why I’ve entitled my series of columns here “Fantasy Baseball Existentialism.” I think it was because I knew I wouldn’t really say much about fantasy baseball even though it’s a fantasy baseball column in theory, and so I added the word existentialism to like try to tip people off that this would ultimately be about, well, not fantasy baseball really. I don’t know. I’ve read two books by Camus so I don’t really know much about existentialism yet either.
So today we’re going to talk about Josh Donaldson. If you didn’t draft him in fantasy, you probably made a mistake. You should trade for him, I’d say. Swing a deal for him or keep him if you’ve got him; dude is legit.
I took Evan Longoria early and never even thought about drafting Donaldson because last year was obviously not sustainable. I figured the A’s would regress some this year and fall behind Texas in the AL West. I assumed Donaldson would fall off in a big way from his near-8-win season in 2013. That had to have been a fluke, right? A guy who hits .232/.280/.386 over his first 328 big league plate appearances without having dominated in the upper minors isn’t going to sustain a .301/.384/.499 slash line. That absolutely had to be his age-27 peak season, and the rest of his career would be a downhill slide from that epoch.
On July 8, 2008, with the A’s five games back of the Angels despite possessing a much better run differential (+63 to +24), Billy Beane flipped Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the first-place Cubs for Donaldson, Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, and Eric Patterson. Nine days later, Beane traded Joe Blanton to Philadelphia for prospects Adrian Cardenas, Matt Spencer, and Josh Outman. Six years later, the fruit of those reloading efforts have paid off in a big way via J-Don. Do they actually call him that? Probably not. And so but you trade for a bunch of guys and maybe most of them don’t work out as you hoped but that’s okay if you can get a gamer like Donaldson to build a championship baseball team around.
On Wednesday night at whatever it is they’re calling the Oakland Coliseum these days (O.co Coliseum) with the A’s trailing Detroit 1-0, Donaldson jumped on a first pitch changeup from Joe Nathan and unloaded it down the left-field line for a game-winning three-run homer. After a slow start, Donaldson’s slash line is up to .276/.370/.529. He’s already been worth three wins. Since the start of last season, only Mike Trout has been more valuable than Donaldson.
Rather than regressing, Donaldson is flourishing. Rather than regressing, the A’s just keep on winning. They have the second-best record in baseball one year after winning 96 games. The year before that, they won 94 games. They’re on pace for 96 wins this season. Their +100 run differential is by far the best in the game.
Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for a fall that’s never coming with these guys. Maybe it’s time to stop doubting Donaldson, who has now sustained a star-level performance for a season and two months. Maybe it’s time to stop doubting Billy Beane, who has managed to build a roster that appears well on its way to a third straight AL West crown despite one of the game’s smallest payrolls. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin go down for the season with elbow injuries and Dan Straily gets demoted due to ineffectiveness, and yet the A’s 6th, 7th, and 8th starters slide right in there and pitch effectively.
I mean who in the world does Jesse Chavez think he is? Why is a 30-year-old journeyman with a career 5.48 ERA suddenly pitching like a top-of-the-rotation starter?
Back to Donaldson, I happened to be at last night’s game, though I didn’t show up until the sixth inning. My co-workers and I were going to the game to celebrate the departure of a guy who quit. If you’ve ever had a job you hated, you know what I’m talking about when I use the word “celebrate.” I mean I guess compared to war, slavery, abject poverty, violence, and other miseries in life, having a middle class office job you don’t like isn’t so bad. If you can afford to go to an A’s game, you probably shouldn’t complain too much even if all you actually do is petulantly whine all the time.
And so but when I showed up to a baseball game in the sixth inning I knew right then and there that somehow my life really had gotten off track. I mean not even a lowly Dodgers fan would show up that late. But again, if you’ve ever had a job that was pretty miserable, you can relate to over-indulging on the honey mead and losing track of time and the truly important things in life like baseball. I don’t know why baseball matters, but intuitively I know it really does, and to feel the game slipping away from me is truly frightening. If I no longer love baseball, am I capable of loving anything? Or is it just that in this Year of the 99-Cent Taco, I’d rather read Infinite Jest and consume literature instead of sport? Doing anything besides consuming, after all, is clearly out of the question. In a late-capitalist society one is defined solely via their consumption, no?
And so but there was a lot of resentment festering at this A’s game. Some of us were probably envious of our escaping co-worker. Some of us were mad at ourselves for having gotten to the game so late. Then, as Craig Gentry led away from first and Coco Crisp from third, and I wondered whether Gentry would attempt to steal the bag to put the winning run in scoring position, Donaldson delivered the dinger that would momentarily recall me to baseball, and to life. Donaldson stole victory from the jaws of defeat and provided the intoxication of winning to a group of co-workers lost in the modern world, badly in need of something greater than themselves. Can remarkable greatness of this thrifty Oakland team save the lost souls of the Bay Area? Can they teach us what it is to love the game once more?
With one of the game’s truly elite players in Donaldson, maybe this will be the year Beane’s stuff works in the playoffs. Josh Donaldson, elite player? That seems weird to write, but WAR don’t lie. As I recall Donaldson’s game-winning home run sailing into the bleachers, I can’t help but think: has Billy Beane created the perfect entertainment?
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