Donaldson calls 2018 a “lost season” after he was on the shelf for all but 52 games. A left calf strain was the main culprit. In 2017 a right calf injury sent Donaldson to the disabled list or the first time in his career and he ended up playing only 113 games.
Once remarkably durable, Donaldson had become undependable. The timing was bad for his finances. Donaldson was hitting free agency for the first time just before turning 33 years old. The Braves signed him for one year and $23 million.
As Donaldson expected, teams weren’t willing to offer him good deals for longer terms. That’s business. Personally, he had to deal with his baseball mortality for the first time.
“It sucks to be human,” Donaldson said. “I’m not a robot. Everybody, if you play long enough, at some point you are going to deal with injuries.”
Donaldson’s time came in the past two years. That prompted him to closely examine his body for deficiencies and seek new approaches to training. Thus, the toe exercises.
Donaldson said he also worked on range of motion in his feet, mobility, single-leg strength, and running mechanics. He wasn’t targeting his calves so much as he was rebuilding his gait.
“It’s all linked,” Donaldson said. “My foot impact has not been very good for a really long time now. That’s one thing we tried to do this offseason was (adjust) how my foot was leaning into the ground. How it was absorbing and impacting the ground, and really focus on getting back to good position.”
There are some unique physics at play because Donaldson has massive calves. “Ever since I was a baby,” he said, and they got bigger as he relied on them over the years to power his swing, play the field and run the bases.
“I’m trying to find some techniques to take pressure off that,” he said. “It’s just when I’m running. Everything else, I’m good.”
Donaldson didn’t need to worry much about those kind of things as a younger player. From 2013, his first full season in the majors, until 2016 he played most every day and was one of the top hitters in the game.
Donaldson played in at least 155 games in each of those four seasons. He was an All-Star three times, won the 2015 American League MVP Award and was top eight in MVP voting for the other three seasons.
Donaldson’s fWAR during that period (29.2) was second to Mike Trout, who won two AL MVP awards. Strip out defense and Donaldson’s Weighted On Base Average (.384) tied for seventh-best among big-league regulars from 2013 to 2016.
Over that period Donaldson was never hurt, played hard and always produced. He was injured a little bit in 2017, and then a lot in 2018. Suddenly he couldn’t play and couldn’t produce.
“When I was 26, 27 years old I felt like I could go out there and tear a hamstring and be fine,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson is not old in real-world terms. But, he notes that “older you get into your career you are going to have to deal with things a little bit better.” Now Donaldson believes he finally has a handle on the problems with his calves.
If that’s the case, I think there’s a very good chance he’s going to have a big year for the Braves. For one, it’s not as if Donaldson was bad the past two seasons. He just couldn’t live up to his usual standards because he couldn’t stay on the field.
In 2017 Donaldson produced a 5.1 WAR, which tied for 19th-best in the majors (Freddie Freeman led the Braves with a 4.4 WAR that season with 18 more plate appearances). Last season Donaldson posted a 1.3 WAR in just 52 games. After an August trade from Toronto to Cleveland, Donaldson made 60 plate appearances and hit .280 with a .400 OBP, three home runs, three doubles and 10 walks.
That’s a small sample. Yet it’s compelling when considered alongside Donaldson’s 2017 production and those four great years before that. It’s evidence that when Donaldson is feeling right, he’s still a very good hitter. Also notable: Donaldson improved his already-good walk rate to excellent in 2016 and 2017, and getting on base that way is a great way to make the age curve gentler.
Donaldson always has had the reputation of being a hard-edged player. Now he’s got even more reason to be motivated. The incentives are financial and reputational.
Can Donaldson have a strong year and get one more long-term contract? Can he regain the form that once made him an MVP, or something close to it? Can he be the piece that propels the Braves to another NL East title and, this time, a postseason run?
“I think I’m always out to prove something,” Donaldson said. “I just have a little more to prove this year than probably in years past.”
It starts on the ground, with his toes, and goes from there.