Josh Donaldson's rise to stardom has been one of the quickest, and maybe unlikeliest, in recent memory.
After a 3-for-4 night on Thursday, which included two homers and four RBI, his Oakland A's enjoyed a 10-1 rout of the Houston Astros.
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle shared this nugget from Donaldson that he had hoped to hit three home runs:
Donaldson said he told reliever Ryan Cook that he would hit three homers on Thursday. 'I fell a little short,' he said. 'That was just kind of in fun, but it was nice (to) have a good day especially after the last three days.'
Donaldson's OPS is now up to .910, which is best in the game among third basemen.
That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but if you haven't been paying attention to Donaldson since late in the 2012 season, you would be downright shocked to hear that.
When the Oakland A's decided to increase his versatility by moving him to the hot corner late in the 2011 season with Triple-A Sacramento, it was the first time he had played the position regularly since starring at Auburn University from 2005-2007. The experiment continued into the Dominican Winter League and into spring training of 2012, though the team still viewed the 26-year-old catcher as depth at what was considered to be a very thin position in the organization rather than competition for projected starter Scott Sizemore.
Despite a decent spring (.732 OPS, 2 HR, 3 2B, 5 BB, 16 K in 20 games), Donaldson didn't do anything to make the A's think he'd become anything more than a versatile bench player in the future. But a season-ending knee injury to Sizemore late in camp opened the door for Donaldson to prove he could be more. He received the starting nod on Opening Day.
The result, however, was disastrous. After hitting .153 (15-for-98) with one homer, one walk and 26 strikeouts in 28 games—he had a minor league stint in between but returned after an injury to outfielder Yoenis Cespedes—the A's mercifully sent Donaldson to the minors in mid-June and handed the everyday job to veteran Brandon Inge, who had signed with the team in late April.
If he was never given another opportunity, no one would have ever questioned that decision. Donaldson had his chance and failed miserably. Not even Inge's lack of production after Donaldson's demotion was enough to get him another chance. A dislocated shoulder, however, which forced Inge to the disabled list in mid-August, opened the door once again.
Thrown back into the everyday lineup, Donaldson came out of the gates like a man who knew he had been given a brand new life. In 47 games, he hit .290 (51-for-176) with eight homers, 11 doubles and 26 RBI to finish off the season.
The A's had found their third baseman. But that's not all.
By the end of his breakout 2013 season, Donaldson had established himself as one of the best third basemen in the game. With an .883 OPS, 24 homers, 37 doubles and 93 RBI for a first-place A's team that won 96 games, he finished fourth in AL MVP voting behind Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis, and ahead of star third basemen Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre.
With Cabrera no longer a regular third baseman in Detroit, Beltre now in his mid-30s and currently on the disabled list, David Wright off to a poor start with the New York Mets (.660 OPS, HR, 23 K in 22 games), and 21 year-old star Manny Machado still recovering from offseason knee surgery and not as advanced offensively as the aforementioned players, it's clear that Donaldson and Longoria are ahead of the pack.
You can make a case for either player. They are both 28 years old, and they are two of the best all-around players in the game, leading playoff-caliber small-market ball clubs. Their paths to the majors were very different—Donaldson's was long and winding, while Longoria's was short and predictable—but they are now arguably the two best third basemen in the game.
Whether or not they are even aware of it, they are in a season-long battle, and the one who has the superior season could stand alone as baseball's best third baseman. That it could be Donaldson—the guy who was sent to the minors two years ago because he was really, really bad at hitting a baseball—once again proves you can't predict anything that happens in this game.