Justin Smoak was the ultimate hero in the Jays’ 5-3 win over the Rays on Thursday evening, but perhaps largely because Tommy Hunter wanted nothing to do with the batter before him. Josh Donaldson saw few pitches worth swinging at in his eighth inning at-bat, which preceded Smoak’s no-doubt blast over the centre field fence, and you can hardly blame Hunter and the Rays for approaching him that way. Donaldson had already blasted two home runs in the game, and three in his previous four.
Those blasts have been part of one hell of a turnaround.
We only have to look back to July 22nd, less than a month ago, to see a Josh Donaldson who was sitting on a 110 wRC+. A slash line of .236/.356/.422. A season battered by injury and surprising struggles. The 2015 MVP, and the player worth 7.6 WAR in 2016, simply hadn’t looked like himself.
Except, when he was on the field, he did for the most part look like himself. Granted, if you’d argued that he maybe didn’t appear quite as spry as he was prior to the calf injury he suffered in spring training, I probably wouldn’t have disagreed. But this was Josh Donaldson, healthy enough to be in the lineup, swinging a bat, doing something to help his team win. The results simply weren’t there.
Now, though, he’s doing everything to help his team win. He has strapped what for much of the season has felt like a sorry-ass roster to his back, and is dragging them — with help from Smoak and from Stroman and from some especially slippery performances out of the bullpen (Danny Barnes, take a bow, buddy) — straight back into the playoff conversation.
Not only has Donaldson righted himself over the last few weeks, he’s righted his entire season.
Following Thursday’s performance — two home runs and a walk — Donaldson has assumed the club lead in wRC+. From 110 just a month ago, his season mark now stands at 150. That edges him past Justin Smoak’s 149 for the time being. It also puts Donaldson in with some elite company: himself. In his MVP season of 2015, Donaldson’s wRC+ was 154. Last year it was 155. His two breakout years in Oakland, 2013 and 2014, saw him post marks of 147 and 130. Somehow, in what had seemed for so long like a season lost, he’s back, baby.
He’s also back among the elite hitters in the game. Heading into Wednesday’s action, only fourteen hitters among the 214 with at least 300 plate appearances on the season had posted a wRC+ of 150 or above: JD Martinez, Zack Cozart, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Correa, Giancarlo Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, Justin Turner, Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, José Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout. The absolute cream of the crop of hitting stars of 2017. And now Josh Donaldson is right back there with them. HOLY SHIT!
How did he get there? Quietly at first, then with the force of a thousand suns.
From July 23rd through Wednesday’s action, Donaldson had put up a mind-boggling wRC+ of 226, slashing .351/.484/.784.
For all the ink Giancarlo Stanton has been (rightly) getting for his incredible hitting of late, over that same stretch his wRC+ is just about the same, at 232.
Mike Trout’s is 198. Joey Votto’s is 208.
True, I’m picking an arbitrary starting point that’s as favourable to Donaldson as I can find. But, because it takes until the next morning for FanGraphs to update their game log data, I’m also not including today’s two home run game!
There is, of course, another narrative Donaldson is bending to his will like he’s Superman and it’s a goddamn lead pipe.
The Jays lost 8-1 to Cleveland on July 23rd, the day of my arbitrary starting point. Since then they’ve won 15 times and lost just eight. They now sit three games out of the second Wild Card spot. They’re tied with the Rays and with the Orioles. The teams ahead of them, though they are plentiful, are traaaaaaaash: the Rangers, Twins, Mariners, Royals, and Angels. I’d be scared of this Jays team if I were them, wouldn’t you? With Donaldson doing this? With Smoak most definitely not slumping? With Devon Travis and possibly Aaron Sanchez not all that far off from returning (hopefully)?
The Jays still have a long way to go and a whole lot of mine fields to wade through. There are games against the Cubs at Wrigley this weekend, and several more still with a very good Red Sox team. But also a whole lot with Tampa, Baltimore, Minnesota, Kansas City, and the current holders of the first Wild Card spot, the Yankees, too. They’re probably going to want to go 15-8 over 23 games again at some point here, just to play it safe, but… uh… it’s on. Holy shit, this shit is very much on.
I don’t know how. I don’t know why in the hell it’s suddenly happening and suddenly seems so much more believable than before. But it is. It does. And… OK, let’s be honest, it’s Donaldson. Hoooooooly shit, it’s Donaldson. What a player.