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Josh Donaldson is Quietly (Somehow) Keeping the Blue Jays on Top of the AL East

Josh Donaldson is playing better than his MVP season last year and is still somehow flying under the radar.

Josh Donaldson has had a week. Monday night in Baltimore, the Toronto third baseman hit a fourth-inning home run to straightaway center that tied what would become a Blue Jays win and brought his HR totals up to the following: four in his last two games, six in his last five, and 34 on the year. His on-base and slugging percentages are both up from his 2015 MVP campaign, and his OPS+ sits a full ten points higher. The Blue Jays hold a two-game lead in a rough American League East, and Donaldson, sure in the field and consistently explosive in the lineup, is by a healthy margin the biggest reason why.


Even in the middle of a two-year stretch that matches any in baseball, though, Donaldson's notoriety seems a little lacking. He's well-known, of course, as the MVP award confirms, and adored in Toronto. When he hit his third homer of the game on Sunday afternoon against the Twins, Canadian fans showered the field with their caps and chanted for a curtain call. But due to his playing north of the border or in a notoriously stacked lineup or even just his lack of wunderkind status—his fellow 2016 MVP candidates Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve are all younger than the 30-year-old Donaldson by a number of years—Donaldson registers less as an every-night dynamo than as a merely excellent and consistent contributor, a key part of a well-built squad.

Lately, he has served notice to anyone who might take his play for granted. Sunday's three-homer afternoon against Minnesota was a statistical anomaly but not a stylistic one; it came out of the same approach he has used since his 2013 breakout in Oakland. Donaldson stands close to the plate and hunched, his hands bobbing meanly, and when he sees a pitch he likes, he uncorks himself so fast—straightening up, bat zooming through to a one-handed finish, heels spinning on the dirt—that he seems liable to rip every ligament in his body. The swing suggests a single-minded hacker, but his true gift may be for pitch recognition; he lets sliders a couple inches off the plate pass by, works his way ahead in counts, and then unloads on the eventual fastball. The three bombs came off of heaters. Middle-up, inside, and low—he had them all measured and sent them all flying.

Donaldson defends with the same all-forward verve. In that Sunday afternoon game, he started a 5-4-3 double play that initially looked hopeless and was saved only by the strength of his throw; the following night in Baltimore, he jumped up to backhand a knuckling liner. His talent on this side of the ball, too, seems counterintuitively to tamp down his reputation. He is tough to categorize—too nimble in the field to be a true slugger, too potent with the bat to be a crack defender.

When Donaldson arrived in Toronto in 2015 via the most ill-conceived trade of Billy Beane's career, he was thought to be joining baseball's most fearsome lineup, with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion already established as 40-homer threats. When Troy Tulowitzki joined later in the year, that sense only grew. In reality, though, the Jays are decreasingly balanced—Bautista has struggled with injuries and had his worst year since 2009 this season; Tulowitzki is a shell of his Colorado self—and increasingly Donaldson's. They are where they are not because of their old line of sluggers but because they have one of baseball's best players leading the way, doing everything every night.