Donaldson’s relentless perfectionism will only elevate his game

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson talks about a fun season with the Jays and losing in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

KANSAS CITY — As his teammates sat around the clubhouse in quiet, somber resignation over the end of their season, Josh Donaldson got up from his locker and walked over to a laptop in the middle of the room. He’d just made the final out of the Toronto Blue Jays’ post-season run, a sharply hit grounder to the left side, which Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas barely had to move to collect. He wanted to see the pitch again. Wanted to see if there was anything else he could’ve done.

The answer? Probably not. Royals closer Wade Davis located a 94.6-mph cutter perfectly at the bottom of the zone, running away from Donaldson’s knees and off the sweet spot of his bat where he would’ve liked to hit it. It was Davis’ 30th pitch of the night and he put it in a tremendous spot.

Wearing a t-shirt and compression leggings, Donaldson watched the sequence of his ninth inning at-bat closely. A fastball in, a fastball over the plate, another one in, and then that cutter. It was the second fastball that Donaldson should have hit. That was the best pitch he saw, but when he swung at it he missed entirely. Any ballplayer will tell you it always comes down to execution.

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And you really can’t fault Donaldson for a lack of that in his first year as a Blue Jay. Over the course of a belligerent, relentless campaign, Donaldson played like a guy trying to put together the perfect offensive season. There were no half-hearted at-bats, no cheap outs. He gave pitchers a struggle in each of the 711 times he went to the plate and ended up with an 8.7-WAR, .939-OPS season to his name. He was unquestionably the Blue Jays’ best player from April through October, and yet, as Friday night became Saturday morning and the frost was just beginning to form on the cadaver of Toronto’s season, there he was, trying to figure out what else he could have done.

Donaldson doesn’t watch film like most guys. Maybe it’s because he watches so much of it. Some players get emotional and visibly upset when they’re watching their own at-bats, others watch it once and never again. Donaldson watches over and over — calmly, serenely, constantly analyzing his swings in his head and assessing how he’ll get better from it. It’s what will make him an MVP.

That very well might happen this year. If it doesn’t, it surely will someday soon. What’s crazy about Donaldson is that, as good as he’s been, he’s only getting better. He set career-highs in a variety of offensive categories this season, something that is no doubt a benefit of playing half his games at the Roger Centre, but also a tangible result of the borderline obsessive amount of work he puts in.

This is the player Alex Anthopoulos thought he was bringing in last winter when he acquired him for a mediocre package that left the rest of baseball shocked. Donaldson isn’t just an incredible talent, he’s a tireless worker, a tremendous clubhouse presence, a beloved teammate and a ballplayer’s ballplayer who remains so intensely locked in to every game, every at-bat, every pitch that it drives opponents mad. These platitudes get thrown around a lot in sport, sure. But with Donaldson there’s something to it.

Shortly after he finished watching film, Donaldson got up and took a lap around the clubhouse, hugging teammates and congratulating them on their years. He gave one to Mark Buehrle, the pitcher who was preparing to be on the Blue Jays’ World Series roster but instead took off his blue-and-white uniform for potentially the last time, and joked about seeing everyone next year at spring training.

He gave one to Troy Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays trade deadline acquisition who had trouble acclimating to life in Toronto but grew especially close with Donaldson, who knew a thing or two about jarring, unexpected trades.

And he gave a long embrace to Kevin Pillar. The Blue Jays centre fielder had one of the most unexpected seasons of anyone in that room, posting 4.3 wins above replacement after coming into the season as a widely written-off fourth outfielder. He played a gutsy, highlight-filled 170-game campaign that clearly took a massive toll on him, both physically and emotionally. Donaldson, who played 169 games himself, looked Pillar in the eyes and told him how proud he was — of what he’s become, and what he could be.

“We have a lot of guys in this lineup who haven’t really experienced [the post-season,]” Donaldson said. “You learn a lot about yourself. You learn a lot about what it takes to do this, and, ultimately, what it takes to win ballgames. That’s what’s most important — is how can you help your team win. And I felt like a lot of guys learned a lot about themselves and how to prepare and come day in and day out through this experience.”

Donaldson learned those lessons himself over the last three seasons in Oakland, when he started his rise to becoming one of the most prolific offensive threats in the game, playing in the post-season each year. He learned what it took to prepare himself and make the most of the tools at his disposal to improve his ability, such as all the video he watches and all the swings he takes in the batting cages.

Much like Pillar, Donaldson took some time to figure out how to succeed in the game and develop into a fully-formed major leaguer. In fact, Donaldson’s struggles in his early-to-mid 20s were much more pronounced than Pillar’s (he was essentially a quad-A player until 2013), until he revamped his entire game around the time he was 27 and started to become the player he is today. Then he had to face his unexpected departure from Oakland — much like Tulowitzki’s from Colorado — and what it meant to work in Canada, playing ball for a team he never thought he’d play for.

“The support’s been amazing throughout the entire year. I wasn’t thinking about this possibility last year, but it’s been amazing,” It’s been a great ride for myself and for my team,” Donaldson said. “It’s tough to look toward the future now, but it’s going to be fun. I felt like we had a lot of growth with a lot of guys in our lineup and in our pitching staff. Hopefully we keep trending in the right direction.”

There will always be gripes. Maybe his post-season could have been better, he hit .244/.354/.537 with three homers and three doubles in 11 games, which is a fine rate of production for mere mortals but somewhat below the standard Donaldson has set for himself. Maybe he could have laid off that Davis cutter at the bottom of the zone. Maybe he could have put that hittable fastball two pitches earlier into play. Maybe if his first-pitch liner in the fifth inning of that game, with two outs and two men on, which came off his bat at 114 mph but hurtled directly into the glove of Mike Moustakas at third base was hit just a few inches further in either direction it would’ve gotten through and scored the runs his team needed to win. Maybe the Blue Jays are still playing now if he does all that. Who knows?

But what no Blue Jays fan will ever question about Donaldson after this remarkable, possibly MVP-winning season is his desire, and his work ethic, and his passion, and what he means to his team. And how he might still be getting better, as he continues working, grinding, pushing towards capturing the ultimate goal — a ring.

“We don’t feel great about the situation now but give it some time to breathe a little bit. Coming into spring training next year, I feel like we’re going to have some momentum. There’s been a lot of learning throughout this season for a lot of guys, including myself, and I feel like it can only make us better in the end,” Donaldson said, before leaving the clubhouse, and his 2015 season, behind. “Hopefully next year we’ll be able to finish this thing off.”

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