Opportunities in the major leagues are few and far between. Last June 21st, it appeared that Josh Donaldson's opportunity may have passed him by.
At the start of spring training last year, Donaldson was expected to battle with Anthony Recker and Landon Powell to be the A's back-up catcher. But when incumbent starting third baseman Scott Sizemore went down with a torn ACL on the first day of spring drills, Donaldson was suddenly the front-runner to take Sizemore's place.
Although Donaldson had been primarily a catcher during his minor league career, playing third base wasn't completely foreign to the Auburn alum. He had been a third baseman when he first arrived in college, making the switch to behind the plate before his junior season. Donaldson also played a handful of games at third in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Still, going into the 2011 season, Donaldson's future appeared still very much tied to the catcher position.
The wear-and-tear of the position was starting to impact Donaldson's progress, however. In 2010, he was limited to 86 games by a number of injuries, including a knee injury. Although he was able to play 115 games in 2011, he was playing through minor injuries throughout the year. Some within the organization believed that Donaldson would be better able to reach his potential as a hitter if he was moved out from behind the plate. For the final month of the 2011 season, Donaldson played third base for the Sacramento River Cats. Donaldson also gained more experience at the hot corner during winter ball that off-season.
Despite that time at third, Donaldson was still a catcher before Sizemore's injury. He quickly had to change his mindset and his preparation for the season in order to compete for the third base job.
"I came into spring training and when the opportunity was presented, me and [A's third base coach] Mike Gallego and a bunch of the coaches were back there in the back-field when the sun first popped up and after the game," Donaldson said at the A's 2013 FanFest. "There was a lot of work getting done. It's not like it just sort of happened over night."
Donaldson impressed the A's with his glove-work at third, and he hit enough to earn a spot on the A's Opening Day roster, sharing the third base job with Eric Sogard. Things didn't go smoothly for Donaldson once April rolled around, however. After collecting a hit in three at-bats in the second game of the season against the Mariners in Japan, Donaldson would have only two hits in 29 April at-bats (.069 BA). He would be sent down to Triple-A on April 23 and a few days later, the A's signed veteran Brandon Inge to play third.
Donaldson was presented with another opportunity a few weeks later when Inge went down with an injury. While Donaldson hit slightly better in his second stint with the team, his batting average was still well below the Mendoza line when the A's sent him back to Triple-A on June 21st. At the point he was sent down, it appeared Donaldson's window to stick with the A's may have closed. Inge, while not producing overwhelming numbers at the plate, had collected several big hits and was becoming one of the veteran leaders of the club. Behind the plate, top prospect Derek Norris was getting an opportunity for playing time along with the veteran Kurt Suzuki.
As much as Donaldson struggled during his two early-season stints with the A's, he was equally as hot with the River Cats. In total, Donaldson would log 51 games and 209 at-bats with Sacramento, and he put together his best minor league season since his professional debut in the Northwest League in 2007. Donaldson batted .335/.402/.598 with 13 homers with Sacramento. While Donaldson was not expecting another chance in the big leagues, his work with Sacramento put him in a good position for another call-up when Inge separated his shoulder in mid-August.
Donaldson re-joined the A's on August 15th and the third time was the charm for him in the big leagues. He would take over as the A's regular third baseman and would hit .290/.356/.489 with eight homers in 47 games while also playing excellent defense.
Although the results were dramatically different, Donaldson didn't make any significant mechanical changes. Instead, it was two tweaks to his mental approach that keyed his late-season success with the A's.
"I felt like I was making better contact [during his second call-up in May]. I wasn't catching the breaks at the time, but I still wasn't happy with what I was doing," Donaldson said. "I felt like the pitchers were still able to control the at-bats a little bit. Whenever I came back up the last time, what I was working on in Sacramento was really focusing in on zones at the plate.
"It was another thing, too, the last time I was called up, I quit expecting things out of myself just for the simple fact that everything I had been expecting, I felt like it had hurt me. I just came up there and wanted to focus on playing defense because I knew I could help the team defensively. We played in a lot of close games, so I felt that as long as I played good defense, I would play. Then I started hitting right away against Kansas City, the first few games. Then I was like ‘okay, I know I can do it. But now I am doing it.' After that happened, it started rolling and I didn't look back from there."
Donaldson has been a notoriously streaky hitter throughout his minor league career, but he was much more consistent last season. From the time he was sent back to Sacramento on June 21st through the end of the A's post-season run, Donaldson went without a hit in consecutive games only once.
"I felt like that was a huge accomplishment for me. I felt like every day I was preparing like it was the same. I wasn't going up there and living and dying off of one at-bat," Donaldson said.
"Especially at the beginning of the year when I was in and I was out, I wanted to get a hit so badly because I wanted to play. Everyone wants to play. When it wasn't working out, then you really start to put the stressors on yourself. It gets away from just worrying about winning the game to just worrying about playing. Anytime when I have just gone out there and worried about winning, I felt like it has gone very advantageous for me."
Donaldson had several big hits for the A's down-the-stretch, but no hits were bigger than the ninth-inning, game-tying two-run homerun he hit against Seattle on September 29th and his double that ignited the game-winning rally for the A's in the ninth inning in Game Four of the ALDS. Donaldson relishes having opportunities in the big moments.
"I know it doesn't have a lot of relevance, but all throughout my minor league career, when the game was on the line, I really performed well in those situations," Donaldson said. "When it happened in the big leagues, I felt like it was a confirmation. As a kid, you are trying to prepare yourself for that, if you get that chance. I have been pretty fortunate to get a few chances."
A's manager Bob Melvin saw a change in Donaldson from his time early in the season with the A's to the end of the year.
"Josh went down a few times and came up the last time and really kind of found himself," Melvin said. "The ability has always been there for Josh. It's just accepting himself at the big league level, which a lot of guys have to do, and then when you have some struggles, it's that much more difficult the next time you come up. Based on what he accomplished at the end of last season – so many big hits and so many big plays defensively – he really feels good about himself."
Donaldson has enjoyed the transition from catcher to third base from both a mental and physical perspective.
"This is probably the first off-season in two years that I picked the ball up and started throwing and it didn't hurt," Donaldson said. "As far as my knees and the joints and all of that, I feel like playing third base last year was huge for me.
"You get thumbed by pitchers and your thumbs get bruised and swollen [while catching]. Taking foul balls all of the time. Third base is one of those things where I might take a ball off of the chest every now and again, but it's nowhere near the damage you take from catching everyday."
Mentally, Donaldson says the switch from catcher to third has freed him to focus more intently on his hitting.
"With catching, you are worried about pitchers. You are worried about the scouting report," Donaldson said. "You are having meetings with Curt [Young, A's pitching coach] and the starting pitcher that day and then you've got to know who's up for that game and what gameplan you want for those guys.
"Catching is difficult. A lot of people don't understand what goes into it. It's not just ‘hey let's go out there and call a game.' You've got to do your homework, especially if you are going to be good at it. That's why Kurt Suzuki was so well respected around here because the guy prepared like no other. I think playing third rather than catching will definitely help [his hitting] because it gives me a little bit more time to focus on myself."
Although the A's will have several players in camp with experience at third base, including a now healthy Sizemore, Donaldson will enter spring training as the front-runner to be the A's everyday third baseman, according to Melvin.
"We have some depth there. But we are really trying to do at this point is show Josh that we have a lot of confidence in him based on what he accomplished last year," Melvin said.
Donaldson is excited to prove that last year's success was just the beginning of a long career for him in the major leagues.
"The way things played out with the team and myself, it was a dream come true for me," Donaldson said. "To come here today and hopefully have a chance to hold down third base this year, hopefully compete for another AL West championship is a big blessing for me. I hope and somewhat expect good things to happen."