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.