Josh Donaldson said he has spent the winter, at least when his 2-month-old daughter Aubrey is asleep, watching reruns of "Survivor." No, it's not the Twins' 2020 highlight film.
Donaldson sat out more than half the nine-week 2020 season, his first under a four-year contract with the Twins, with a recurring calf injury, and when he did play, by the third baseman's own admission during Saturday's online-only TwinsFest, he and the Twins' slugging lineup rarely lived up to their reputation.
"I didn't feel like, offensively, we were playing as well as we anticipated," Donaldson said. "But we still won the division."
He's got a point. The Twins scored a team-record 5.80 runs per game in 2019, added the former MVP to the top of their lineup — and suffered the biggest one-year falloff in Minnesota history, to just 4.82 runs per game, 10th in the AL. Yet they kept winning anyway, posting only their fourth .600 season, just one win off the previous year's pace.
"It felt like our pitching staff really stepped up," Donaldson said via video call from his Alabama home. "A lot of people were just looking at our team and saying, hey, they're going to have to outslug everybody. But we showed that we had the ability to win close games. Not just by going up there and hitting the home run ball, but by playing good defense, hitting good pitches and having the good bullpen we had last year. We were able to lock some games down."
That doesn't mean he wants to relive last year, starting with the empty stadiums and fabricated atmosphere, which mostly failed to trigger the adrenaline that he thrives on.
"It was a little creepy at times," the 35-year-old veteran said. "Three-two [count], eighth inning, you've got the game on the line and there's nothing going on. You're like, this is so … different."
He hopes he will be, too, and has recently ramped up his workouts in preparation for spring training, which begins for position players in three weeks.
But one thing he doesn't want to change is his leadership role, the responsibility of a 10-year big-league veteran, he said. Donaldson is a voracious consumer of baseball's information saturation, putting a lot of thought into his approach and his routine. His success has made him an evangelist for the science of the swing, especially because not he sees young players making avoidable mistakes out of ignorance.
"You'd be surprised how many guys who are professional athletes really don't know what they're doing. They're just gifted," Donaldson said to an online audience of several thousand Twins fans. "It's kind of embarrassing, really, especially if you hear some of them talk about hitting. But these younger guys, the more I can lead them to asking the right questions, and having them discover what their answers may be, it ultimately helps them, one way or another. [Whether] they like it or don't like it, they start finding themselves a little bit more. And any time you can have a little bit of growth, it's beneficial."
He lacked that type of role model when his career began in 2010 in Oakland, Donaldson said, until journeyman outfielder Jonny Gomes joined the A's two years later.
"He kind of helped me break out of my own shell so I could go out there and feel comfortable about playing," Donaldson said. "That's why it is important. Or maybe it's because I understand you can really get a lot more out of guys if you listen to them and if you show interest, that you care [about] their career. Ultimately for me it's all about winning games, so the more guys we can get that are really good on our team, the more chance you have to win games."