TORONTO – When Josh Donaldson steps to the plate at Rogers Centre and the strains of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” fade out, the crowd noise fills in with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Sometimes it’s just a few hundred fans, until the star Blue Jays slugger hits a home run and some 40,000 more join the call.
“I try not to listen to it too much, but it’s nice,” Donaldson said. “Obviously all year the fans have really supported me. So far this year it’s kind of worked out, and we’ll see how it goes.”
To say it has “worked out” is the understatement of the year from the third baseman, a front-runner to be the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Donaldson leads the league with a .589 slugging percentage, 111 runs batted in, 304 total bases and 104 runs scored.
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He has passed and even lapped defending champion Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels by being at the forefront of the Blue Jays’ surge into first place.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to where we’re at without him,” starting pitcher Mark Buehrle said. “If he doesn’t win, I’d be disappointed.”
Donaldson would be the first player in 31 years to win AL MVP honours after being traded prior to Opening Day. Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the steal of the off-season by acquiring Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics for oft-injured third baseman Brett Lawrie.
The 29-year-old hit 29 home runs last season and 24 in 2013. Coming off an all-star appearance, expectations were that Donaldson would be an upgrade, but few could have predicted this.
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“Two years in Oakland he had good years, but not this good,” Buehrle said. “If somebody says they thought he was going to have this good of a year, I think they’re crazy.”
Donaldson, the No. 2 hitter behind trade-deadline acquisition Troy Tulowitzki and in front of power righties Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in baseball’s most feared and productive lineup, is batting a career-best .304 and already has 36 home runs with 29 games left.
Using the wins above replacement stat, which calculates value to a team if replaced by a bench player or minor-leaguer, Donaldson’s 7.64 trails only Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.
“He’s having a career year,” Toronto starter Marco Estrada said. “What he brings on the field is everything. He’s been our best hitter, his defence is incredible and he brings a lot of energy to the clubhouse. I’m glad he’s on our side.”
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Donaldson leads Trout in wins above replacement and has been much better since the all-star break. Trout’s Angels have also fallen 5 1/2 games back of the second wild-card spot in the AL, while the Blue Jays lead the New York Yankees by 1 1/2 games in the East Division.
“I know Trout’s cooled off a little bit,” Estrada said. “If (Donaldson) just keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s probably guaranteed to win it.”
Donaldson’s resume is unmatched, even by the 24-year-old Trout, who was the unanimous choice as 2014 AL MVP and is considered the best position player in baseball. While Trout as a centre-fielder plays a premium up-the-middle position, Donaldson has also excelled defensively on the tough turf at Rogers Centre.
While Donaldson has already driven in as many runs as Trout did last season, some of that is a product of the Blue Jays’ absurd lineup, which has scored a major-league best 730. Of course Donaldson has thrived in 149 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, hitting .385 to Trout’s .347.
Donaldson’s worst month was June, when he hit .269 with only three homers and 10 RBIs. Many hitters would beg for those numbers.
“I think he’s been consistent, he’s played great defence,” Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro said. “He’s doing it on a team that we’ve got two or three guys that could be doing the same. Eddie, Bau, when those guys were struggling, he’s been really consistent throughout the whole year.”
Even after replacing a homegrown Canadian star in Lawrie, Donaldson became a fan favourite almost right away. As his MVP-calibre season has gone by, he has only picked up more support.
“It’s been surreal,” Donaldson said Sunday at his first “Basebowl” charity event benefiting Jays Care and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto. “I feel since Day One everybody’s been open arms for me and just kind of excited for not just what I have to offer but the team has had to offer.
“We’ve really been playing well as of late. It’s exciting to be a part of this team.”
– With files from John Chidley-Hill.