Way back in the days of yore, or "April" as you mortals may refer to them, we here at Beyond the Box Score had ourselves a little poll. Pre-season awards polls are a time-honored tradition of futility in the sports world. Some picks make a whole lot of sense, and some are rather boring. When completing this particular poll I decided against taking the safe routes, like picking Mike Trout for AL MVP or Clayton Kershaw for NL Cy Young. I say humbug unto thee, easy picks. You are boring and I demand takes of at least lukewarm temperature.
With this in mind, I searched for players that had fair chances of usurping these stalwarts. My Jason Heyward pick for MVP (yes, that was me) has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. My Matt Harvey pick for NL Cy Young was perhaps a bit overzealous, but when Harvey's been right he's been excellent. Chris Sale is about ten innings behind the pack for the AL Cy Young but he's certainly in consideration, and he's leading the game in K/9 as of this writing.
However, Josh Donaldson is looking an awful lot like a potential MVP right now. He's presently only a measly tenth of a win behind the resurgent Jason Kipnis in the AL fWAR race, and that's a very inconsequential difference due to WAR's imperfect nature. I'm also partial to Donaldson given his excellent glovework. DRS and UZR are viewing Kipnis as a plus fielder for the first time in a while, but I'm interested to see if that holds up all season. Besides, these picks weren't a question of who we felt would be the best player in baseball. It's who would garner the most MVP votes. These are two very different things.
If there's one thing we know here at SB Nation, it's that chicks dig the long ball. Let these Cy Young Award winners tell you so.
Donaldson previously played in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum (which is very much a pitcher's park) and also spent a good deal of time playing in Anaheim and Seattle. Those parks have historically played in favor of pitchers as well. However, Donaldson's got an Albert Pujols-sized reservoir of power to tap into, which he did regularly. So when he was flipped to the Blue Jays, the gloves basically came off. Not only would Donaldson be playing half his games at the bandbox that is the Rogers Centre, but he would also be frequenting the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Camden Yards. That's to say nothing of the fact that he's now sharing a lineup with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Russell "I'm a really good hitter now" Martin. It's far from surprising that Donaldson leads the league with 54 runs scored.
The shift to the AL East is largely the reason Donaldson is on pace to set a career high in home runs. ESPN's park factors peg the Rogers Center as the eighth-most homer-friendly park in the game, and Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards are in the top five. Lo and behold, 14 of Donaldson's 17 homers have come in AL East parks. There's a bit of sample bias there as more than half of a player's games will come within the division, of course, but it's a fun little stat.
The parks may not be the only reason for Donaldson's elevated homer rate. Quite simply, he's swinging at more pitches. FanGraphs' Pitch F/X said that Donaldson swung at 43.1% of the pitches he saw last year. This season he's offering at 46.6% of the balls chucked his way. This more aggressive approach has caused his walk rate to fall, but he's also striking out a bit less. More contact means more balls in play, and when you consider that a career high 19.1% of his fly balls are turning into dingers... Donaldson's doing alright.
He's also on pace to match or come close to his career-best 7.6 fWAR season in 2013. Sitting at 3.8 fWAR entering Wednesday's game with the Mets, both Steamer and ZiPS peg his rest-of-season production at 3.5 fWAR. That would put him at 7.3, but of course the projections aren't perfect. He could do a bit more, he could do a bit less. He could be traded for a lesser third baseman, some middling pitching prospects, and an intriguing infielder in the low minors. Baseball's a funny game like that.
At this point in the season, the AL MVP race is a three horse event. There's Kipnis, there's Trout, and there's Donaldson. We've got a whole lot of baseball left before we get to start screaming bloody murder on the Internet over the injustice of whoever wins, and a lot could change between then and now. For instance, Russell Martin sits at only 2.8 fWAR, but that doesn't include his excellent pitch framing and game calling. Miguel Cabrera is also doing Miguel Cabrera things, and he can never be counted out. Besides, Donaldson isn't even likely to start the All-Star Game. He's about two million votes behind Mike Moustakas and his 2.1 fWAR. How good could he possibly be? What a scrub.
Or someone like Manny Machado could go absolutely ballistic in the second half and blow the rest of the field away. Pity him who tries to predict baseball. Shame on him.