Last July 29, Troy Tulowitzki arrived in Toronto, shocked and disoriented by the trade that wrenched him from his longtime Colorado home. But inside the Blue Jays clubhouse, he quickly forged a new friendship.
Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson are kindred spirits. They share a passion for perfection, ever knowing it cannot be achieved. They are old-school, constantly talking baseball, scrutinizing its nuances, trading ideas, embracing the tedium of practice, seeking ways to get better.
All of which brought them together as housemates in spring training and recurrently took them to a practice field, away from prying eyes, after the team's regular drills were finished for the day.
Donaldson came out of his MVP season dissatisfied with his defence, dazzling though it was at times. Tulowitzki, one of the great shortstops of the past decade, served as tutor and model while working on his own game in Dunedin. Day after day, they practised routine plays and difficult plays, imagining they were playing in a game.
"When we went out there on the back fields, we're big leaguers and no one's going to say anything if we just go out and take ground balls however we want," Tulowitzki said. "But we really got after it, diving, doing things like that. We came back in the locker room full of sweat. I think that's probably the biggest difference for Josh. I think he took his ground balls maybe a different way than he had in the past."
It has been a two-way street. Donaldson loves to talk about hitting. Tulowitzki found that out in his first few days as a Blue Jay. Each is eager to help and eager to learn.
"If you're a hitter, I think you're going to go in the cage and watch what Josh does, and compare, and take things from him," Tulowitzki said. "I think he did that with me on the field."
It is natural to think of Josh Donaldson first as a great hitter. So far this year, his encore to an MVP season is an even better one. His slash line reads .304/.418/.598 with 23 homers after 89 games. A year ago in his first 89 games, his comparable numbers were .293/.351/.532 with 21 homers. His walk rate is up. His strikeout rate is down. He leads all of baseball with 80 runs scored.
Across the majors, only Mike Trout's WAR (5.5) exceeds Donaldson's (5.4) among position players. Donaldson ranks third behind David Ortiz and Trout in wRC+, a stat that measures a player's total offensive value, adjusted to league and park. The average wRC+ is 100. Donaldson's is 167.
Clearly, he did not neglect his offence in spring training. But defence—especially his throwing—received special attention from a man who was drafted as a catcher and did not become an everyday third baseman until 2013, when he was with Oakland.
"Defensively, in the past few years—early on in Oakland—I had a tendency to throw some balls away," he said. "I really wanted to come in and work on my footwork and try to put myself in a better position to make more accurate throws. I feel like my range and everything else has been there since I've been at third. The second step is always finishing off the play. At times I didn't put myself in the best position to do that."
When Jays fans think of Donaldson on defence, they see him diving headlong into the stands to catch a pop-up, or racing to the line to make a backhanded stop and throwing from foul ground, or leaping to cut off a liner that seemed destined for a double.
But from 2013 through 2015, Donaldson made 57 errors, 40 on throws. As a Blue Jay last year, he had 13 throwing errors vs. five fielding.
This year: six errors in total, only two on throws.
He thanks the coaching staff for their help. And in this case, the Jays' shortstop was one of his coaches.
How did he learn from Tulowitzki?
"First of all, just watching him," Donaldson said. "I'm a visual learner, and being able to watch him every day is a treat for me and it should be for the fans. We lived together in spring training and we talked baseball a lot. We talked about how to prepare before the season starts.
"I came out of spring training feeling the best defensively that I've ever felt. That really gave me a good feeling about where I was at, and I think it has led to some of my success on defence."
Much of that success stems from footwork. Some of it is about deciding whether to make a throw at all.
Proper footwork is the key to good throws. Put simply, when an infielder catches a ground ball and steps toward his target, his trailing foot should land in the footprint of his front foot, says infield coach Luis Rivera. That keeps his body on a straight line toward first base as he plants his trailing foot to throw.
Before this year, Donaldson sometimes did not hold to that line.
"When he moves his feet now, he just replaces one foot with the other (as he moves toward first base) and he's in a good direction to throw the ball to the target," Rivera said. "I think that has been the key. In the past, once in a while he would put one foot behind the other and other times he would go in front. He wasn't consistent with his footwork. Now every throw that he makes, it's always the same."
During the years when his throwing errors reached double-digits, Donaldson sometimes made errors on throws he shouldn't even have tried.
"Some of the throwing errors he made last year, he really had no play and he was trying to make something out of nothing," Rivera said. "He's learning now to make a throw when there's a play and just put the ball in his pocket when there's not going to be a play."
Tulowitzki's unorthodox yet elegant throwing and uncanny accuracy begin with impeccable footwork, whether he's ranging into the hole or charging a slow bouncer.
"Tulo talks to all the infielders about the importance of making good throws and putting yourself in a good position to throw," Rivera said. "He has been a big influence to everybody on the infield."
Tulowitzki doesn't just talk. As Donaldson points out, he serves as an example by the way he prepares. In his 11th season, Tulowitzki still takes his daily drills seriously.
"When people ask what makes me successful (on defence), one thing I say is—being out there and putting yourself in game situations and game plays, so when the game comes, you've done all those different plays, whether it be slow rollers, balls to your left and to your right, really putting pressure on yourself, not just going through the motions," he said.
While Donaldson's defensive diligence has paid dividends, his gaudy offensive stats are even more remarkable because he has endured a series of relatively minor but irksome injuries—a calf strain, a sore hamstring and a painful thumb bruise. A week ago he took a pitch off his right elbow, which may have influenced manager John Gibbons' decision to use him as the DH in the two games before the all-star break.
"The first month of the season, I actually was producing better than I felt like I should be producing because I wasn't able to recognize pitches in the way I normally do," he said. "And when you're fighting (injuries) to get on the field, it takes a little bit away from your prep work before the game."
Plenty of players battle similar aches and pains, but Donaldson admits they can sometimes disrupt a hitter's timing. ("Milliseconds are huge to us," he said.) After a downturn in May, however, he heated up again at the plate.
"The fact of the matter is, I've been able to log enough at-bats now where I feel like I can recognize pitches and adapt pretty quickly," he said. "And having Eddie (Encarnacion) behind me and producing the way that he is, they've got to pitch to one of us. Then Tulo the last three weeks has been swinging the bat really well. When you lengthen that lineup out, it just makes everybody a little bit more dangerous."
The Blue Jays entered the break with a 51-40 record, eight wins in nine games and in second place in the AL East, two games behind Baltimore. In their past 28 contests, they have averaged 6.55 runs per game. In the 63 games before that, they averaged 4.19.
Over the past month, Donaldson's slash line is .411/.526/.776, complemented by nine homers and 33 runs scored. All the while, he has played solid to sensational defence, buoyed by all that preparation alongside Tulowitzki in spring training.
No matter what Donaldson and Rivera say, Tulowitzki downplays his contribution.
"Josh was the MVP, and if you're the MVP, why do you have to look for ways to improve your game? But he really made it a point in spring training," Tulowitzki said. "Every time I went on the back fields, he'd go over there, work on his defence and ask questions and really try to get better. That's why he's the best. He's never satisfied. Honestly, I don't take any credit because he's the one that put in the work."