Thursday, May 19, 2011

Soft Skills

Jayson Nix made his return from the disabled list last night with a start at third base. The Jays, in honor of his return, put forth more effort kicking the ball around than I've seen from TFC in five years. These two things are not related but they do make me think about one player: John McDonald.

Thanks to numerous injuries around the infield, Johnny Mac already has 24 starts in 2011. All this exposure did a great job cementing what I should have known long ago: John McDonald is a joy we will not soon forgot and may never fully appreciate.

It strikes me as increasingly odd that the prevailing John McDonald narrative is an "up-from-the-bootstraps" story of perseverance. Watching John McDonald play nearly everyday — at nearly every infield position — it is abundantly clear to me that many things John McDonald does on the baseball diamond cannot be taught. They cannot be practiced, they cannot be learned. Chocking it up to hustle and determination does him, in my mind, a great disservice.

It might be stretching to say these abilities are innate but consider his comments from John Lott's excellent profile and companion piece (both of which do a great job of steering clear of the normal Johnny Mac cliche on top of being simply outstanding) when asked about anticipating balls off the bat:
...Watching how their swings are, and knowing what our pitcher’s doing, how well he’s locating his pitches. If pitches are down and in to a lefty, there’s a good chance they’re going to hook that hole to my left. You also try to anticipate through your pre-game work. The information that the coaches give you on the hitters, what they’re going to do, helps you lean in a certain direction, helps you get a jump, so sometimes you need to trust that.
The ability to think about the game in real-time like that is not a skill possessed by all baseball players. The ability to recognize its value is a separate skill all its own.

Lott's profile details the long hours spent improving footwork and learning the fine points of the middle infield. This time spent honing his craft is no different than the amount of time any given hitter puts into the cage learning about pitchers and their tendencies.

The preternatural way he transfers the ball from glove to hand and throws from off-balance and/or bizarre angles is not something you just pick up on the sandlot. This is not the stuff of "gym rats" but a special athlete with a skillset unique to his specific duty - preventing runs.

In many ways, McDonald makes me think of Edwin Encarnacion. EE puts in time with the Guru Butter and the results, well, they speak for themselves. If only it were that easy. Defense and fielding takes just as much skill as hitting. Edwin Encarnacion is a talented hitter and deeply flawed fielder - there are plenty of guys like that around baseball. Some are in the Hall of Fame, others made tens of millions of dollars in their career.

Hardly a hitter of this magnitude, Edwin Encarnacion wasn't wanting for work too long his winter and continues to play nearly every day. His defense is a punchline. His inability to field an affront to basic baseball skill. We deride EE for his ham-fisted fielding as though this is something he should have no trouble just picking up.

John McDonald does scrap and hustle and play the game the right way but first and foremost: he is a supremely talented baseball player. Very few people can do what he does on the field, not to mention staying healthy and ready to play at a moment's notice. With his 10 years of service time coming later this season, his future is secure as a fully-vested pension plan member.

Judging by what is written and said about him, Johnny Mac has a bright future in the game after his playing days finish. His legacy in Toronto as a fan favorite is secure, I just hope we're able to remember and honor him for what he is: one of the finest defensive players we will ever see.

Reuters image courtesy of Daylife.


  1. Huzzah.

    This isn't intended as an anti-stat screed, but because the measurement of the defensive side of the game is somewhat in its nascent stages, it's hard to hang a number on Johnny Mac that makes it clear that there are reasons beyond sentimentality to keep him in high regard.

    (Is that an argument for intangibles? I must be getting rusty.)

    Watch McDonald when he plays, and you'll see him perpetually evaluating his surroundings. Where are his fielders around him, and where are the runners...and yeah, most players do this (or are supposed to), but there really does seem to be some calculus to what he's doing.

    Also: The way that McDonald adjusts his arm angle on throws when he's off his feet or off balance is as beautiful a skill as I've observed in my years of loving baseball.

  2. Put him on the level of excellence, put this post in tiny print under his name.

  3. I was thinking this the other day, but what happens to Johnny Mac after this year? Does he ride off into the sunset with his MLB pension, or does he stick around for a few more years?

  4. I realize McDonald doesn't hit well enough to be a full-time starter (maybe he does?), but really, why in God's name does this team keep putting EE5 in a position to fail? His F. Pct. at third is .800. I can see starting him on D in a pinch here and there, but he should be a DH first and foremost.

  5. Easy LaRussa, your intangiboner is showing. All kidding aside, I think McDonald is a perfect case study for the need for a better defensive metric in baseball. Praise of Johnny Mac's defensive prowess shouldn't boil down to intangibles but it sure feels like it does.

  6. A lot of this stuff was learned from Omar Vizquel from their Cleveland days.


Send forth the witticisms from on high