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Why Josh Donaldson is the Number 1 Third Baseman

With the great influx of young, talented, dynamic players at the third base position in recent years, I'm seeing some people put the likes of Machado, Arenado, or Bryant ahead of the clear top option. Here's why Donaldson is #1.

With form like this, how could he not be the #1 3B in fantasy? He almost has both ankles on the ground.
With form like this, how could he not be the #1 3B in fantasy? He almost has both ankles on the ground.
Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

It's third base week here at Fake Teams and I wanted to use this opportunity to write about one of my favorite players in baseball and an elite fantasy option. I'm going to attempt to prove why Josh "Bringer of Rain" Donaldson should be the first hot corner player off the board in all single season drafts this year.

First, let's talk about how great he is

Season Team G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2012 Athletics 75 294 9 34 33 4 4.80% 20.70% 0.157 0.278 0.241 0.289 0.398 90
2013 Athletics 158 668 24 89 93 5 11.40% 16.50% 0.199 0.333 0.301 0.384 0.499 147
2014 Athletics 158 695 29 93 98 8 10.90% 18.70% 0.201 0.278 0.255 0.342 0.456 129
2015 Blue Jays 158 711 41 122 123 6 10.30% 18.70% 0.271 0.314 0.297 0.371 0.568 154

That table shows his entire MLB career so far and it shows a very good trend. His runs, RBI, HR, and ISO have increased every year. His walk rates have been well above average for three years now and his strikeout rate is consistently below average. He has stayed extremely healthy, with 158 games played in three straight seasons. Last year, after moving out of a big time pitcher's park in Oakland and into a hitter's park in Toronto, he stepped it up even more. His homers jumped up and his runs and RBI increased due to the increased power and the huge improvement in the lineup around him compared to Oakland. His batting average has been the only inconsistent part of his game. When his BABIP has been good, his average has been about 0.300. When it was not so good, his average dropped to 0.240-0.250 or so. Last season's BABIP wasn't that far above league average, so there isn't a big expectation for that to drop this season.

Looking at some deeper stats, his Hard hit % has increased every year: 26.2%, 31.9%, 34.6%, 37.1%, showing that his power increases have been justified by making better contact. More evidence: his BABIP was 0.314 last year despite only hitting 17% line drives (league average is 20.9%). His line drive rate was the 22nd worst in baseball among hitters with more than 400 PA. Line drives, you see, have an average BABIP north of 0.600, so they boost overall BABIP significantly and line drive rate is almost random and has little correlation from year to year for an individual player so you don't want to rely on it for a good BABIP. The average BABIP of players with more than 400 PA and a line drive rate less than 19% last year was 0.280.

There are two ways to have a good BABIP without lots of luck or lots of line drives: be really fast like Dee Gordon or Jose Altuve or hit the ball really hard when you make contact. That's what Donaldson does so well. Last season, he finished 15th in baseball in terms of average home run and fly ball distance with a value of 304 feet. He was at 290 feet in 2014, which was still good for 50th in baseball.

I'm not going to spend much time discussing the great lineup around him because you already know about them. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, these are all fantasy giants and they will all be batting around Donaldson, giving him an absurd number of run and RBI opportunities.

Finally, we get to his projections for this season:

Season Proj. System G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2016 Steamer 145 658 30 96 93 4 10.10% 19.00% 0.223 0.299 0.274 0.352 0.497 131
2016 Fans (57) 154 690 35 122 111 5 10.70% 18.00% 0.242 0.308 0.289 0.368 0.531 144

Steamer is shockingly pessimistic in my opinion. The fans, knowing more about his late-blooming nature and weighting his 2012/2013 numbers less than Steamer, give him a more realistic projection. Let's keep that Fans projection in mind as we look at his competition.

The Competition

The most common alternatives to Donaldson as the number one option at 3B are: Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, and Kris Bryant. They are all extremely talented and should be picked in the first round or early second in all fantasy drafts. However, I don't think they have the combination of floor and ceiling that Donaldson has.

Rather than go through the career numbers for each of these guys, let's just let Steamer and the Fangraphs Fans do that for us, since injury concerns (Machado), inexperience and strikeout rate (Bryant), and power away from Coors and consistency (Arenado) are all factored into those projections.

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
Manny Steamer 146 664 27 91 86 14 8.10% 14.90% 0.199 0.301 0.285 0.345 0.484
Machado Fans (33) 154 689 30 117 101 14 9.10% 15.50% 0.205 0.311 0.292 0.358 0.497
Nolan Steamer 143 631 29 83 97 4 5.80% 14.70% 0.227 0.299 0.289 0.333 0.516
Arenado Fans (15) 153 670 36 102 108 5 5.80% 14.60% 0.255 0.292 0.29 0.331 0.545
Kris Steamer 144 633 31 87 96 11 11.00% 28.40% 0.235 0.345 0.273 0.36 0.507
Bryant Fans (89) 154 670 33 97 112 13 11.90% 28.10% 0.247 0.342 0.271 0.369 0.517

Let's go through these one-by-one and start eliminating them. First, Kris Bryant doesn't have quite as many project homers, runs, or RBI and a worse average due to his strikeouts. His projected for a clear advantage in steals, but it's not enough to make up for the rest. Not to mention he is the riskiest in this group, having less than one full season of performance so far.

Arenado is next and his Fans projection actually beats Donaldson on the power front, thanks to the Coors bump. However, the relatively poor lineup around him keeps his counting stats down and his average is about the same, so a one HR advantage is negated by all those deficiencies elsewhere. None of this factors in the fact that he hit just 10 HR in 514 PA in 2013 or 18 in 467 PA in 2014, before hitting a shocking 42 HR last year. Is the power spike for real? Can he sustain it? There are enough questions that we can eliminate him from #1 consideration.

Finally, we get to the toughest competition, Manny Machado. Machado's Fans projection is very similar to Donaldson. He's got some more speed and fewer homers, but the runs and RBI aren't that far apart. He put up 20 steals last year, which is far better than Donaldson can do. Honestly, when you get to these two you are splitting hairs and I get hesitant about Machado because he did miss most of 2014 with injuries and in 2013, he hit just 14 HR in 710 PA. He's so young that you can certainly explain that away as development and growth. However, his hard hit % last season was a good 33%, not as elite as Donaldson's and his average HR+FB distance of 297 feet trailed Donaldson as well. I simply believe in Donaldson's power and the lineup around him more than Machado's and the additional steals Manny provides aren't enough to close that gap for me.

Quick side note: If Machado qualifies at shortstop in your league (oh Yahoo! and your crazy eligibility rules), then take Machado over Donaldson because the positional adjustment gives him the edge.

This is a great conversation as we head into this season. We have such an influx of talent at the top of this position. I don't fault anyone for making a case for any one of these guys to be at the top and Machado, in particular, would be deserving of the top spot. But, when you factor everything in, the consistent dominance of Donaldson near the top of the best lineup in baseball is too much to overcome. Stepping back even further, it's not unreasonable to make Donaldson a top-5 pick overall after Trout, Harper, Goldschmidt, and Kershaw. Tschus!

P.S. I gleefully snagged Donaldson with the 9th (yes, number 9!!!) pick in the Fake Teams Mock Draft, so he might still be there in the late first round in some leagues, but don't count on it.