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Let the Kids Play

Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez have sparked the team in recent weeks with their stellar play. They are earning larger shares of playing time at the expense of struggling veterans.

MLB: MAY 11 Orioles at Cardinals

The kids are here and they are good.

Remember the beginning of the spring when everyone thought Juan Yepez would be the starting DH and Paul Dejong would be out of the lineup? Well it took a while to get there, but here we are. Yepez’s bat is a fixture in the middle of the order, DeJong is in Triple-A, and Brendan Donovan has earned a large share of the playing time.

Beyond that, Andre Pallante has been a key contributor all season and Jake Walsh has impressed in his first two appearances. I’ll just focus on the hitters today because I’ve written enough (or maybe too much) about Andre Pallante this season and Jake Walsh has only made two appearances.

I wanted to give each of the rookies their own individual article, but there isn’t a statistically significant amount of data on them yet. So, I will look at each of them in this article.

Brendan Donovan

We’ll start by looking at Brendan Donovan since he has been in the majors longer than Yepez. I want to start by saying that I’ve been impressed with the quality of his at-bats. It feels like he sees a million pitches every time he comes to the plate, and he usually ends the AB by doing something positive. He really makes pitchers work and he’s a tough out.

Baseball Reference has him averaging 4.5 pitches per plate appearance, which is a lot (and is tied with Matt Carpenter best single season in that regard) but I swear every time I watch him bat he goes seven pitches deep.

Beyond simply seeing a lot of pitches, Donovan has a 190 wRC+. He has been worth 0.5 fWAR in just 16 games, which puts him sixth on the team among position players. That’s ahead of eight players who have taken more plate appearances than Donovan.

Besides Donovan ability to wear out a pitcher, I’ve also been impressed with his ability to hit everything. Here’s a shocker — Donovan’s lowest wOBA against any pitch group is .377. That’s his wOBA against fastballs. The rookie has a .386 wOBA against breaking pitches and a .505 wOBA against offspeed offerings.

The sample size is obviously really low, but of Donovan’s four doubles, two have been against breaking pitches, and his only home run was against a changeup. That’s pretty impressive for someone getting his first taste of the majors. What’s also impressive is his 12.5% whiff rate against breakers. Sure, he’s only seen 43 of them so let’s not get too excited just yet. Still, he hasn’t been fooled very often and that makes him unique among rookies.

In fact, if he qualified, his 15.8% whiff rate would place him in the top 15 hitters in the league. He’s simply a pesky hitter. And I mean that in the best way possible, not in the way that Skip Schumaker or Pete Kozma were pesky. He doesn’t expand the zone (chase rate below league average), he doesn’t swing and miss, he’s sees a lot of pitches, and he makes a lot of contact. He doesn’t just slap singles, though, as more than half of his eight hits have gone for extra bases.

Pitchers can’t even win when they have two strikes on him. He has a .474 OBP in those situations. Yes. There has literally been a 50/50 chance that he will reach base when he gets two strikes on him. It’s so early, but he looks comfortable hitting from behind and hitting with two strikes. That’s really helped him work the count and see a lot of pitches.

Again, I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but this guy has basically lived around a .380/.390ish OBP his entire minor league career. He hasn’t had much time in the majors, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we generally know what kind of a hitter he is, and that’s an annoying one for opposing pitchers and (hopefully) a productive one for St. Louis.

Let’s halt the talk about how good of a player he might be and simply focus on how much his bat has been needed. In 24 games Paul DeJong had a wRC+ of 29 and an fWAR of -0.3. Literally Pete Kozma would have been better.

Donovan has turned an offensive black hole into a productive spot in the lineup.

That’s been much needed for this team, and it’s Jekyll and Hyde nature at the plate. Sosa may get the first real crack at winning the starting job at short, but that shouldn’t take Donovan out of the lineup. It doesn’t matter where he plays, he simply needs to play. He has done enough to force his way into the lineup on a regular basis, even if it’s not everyday. If he starts to cool off, that’s a different story. But I have a hard time taking one of the team’s best hitters over the last week out of the lineup.

Juan Yepez

I know I just talked about Donovan hitting well with two strikes, but I can’t not also talk about Juan Yepez’s two strike approach. Much has been made of it, and you can read Derrick Goold’s notebook to learn more about it if you haven’t already, but basically Yepez widens his stance and turns his leg kick into a simple toe tap with the goal of simply putting the ball in play.

Here’s Yepez’s regular swing (on a home run).

And here’s his swing with two strikes or runners in scoring position or a shift that vacates the right side of the infield.

This approach works. Yepez is batting .300 with a .364 OBP and only 8 Ks in 22 plate appearances (36.4% K-rate) when he has two strikes. That’s about as solid as it gets with two strikes. For reference, Goldy batted .203 with a .274 OBP and a 36.8% strikeout rate with two strikes last year.

This is a small sample, but this isn’t the first year that Yepez has hit well in tight situations. According to Goold, Yepez batted .353 when behind in the count in 2021. I can’t find how well he hit with two strikes, but batting .353 when behind in the count is mighty impressive.

We’ll see how much this sticks since MLB pitchers tend to be a bit nastier and a bit more controlled than Triple-A pitchers. Still it’s an encouraging start for a rookie and his two strike approach certainly seems to lend itself to more contact. At the very least, I love watching it. It’s unique and I respect the idea behind it.

Also like Donovan, Yepez has crushed both fastballs and breaking balls. He has wOBAed .399 against fastballs and .385 against breaking balls while hitting a homer against each.

Again, it’s still too early to know if this trend will stick, but he seems to be a smart hitter considering his willingness to change his approach with two strikes and his strong approach at the plate in the minors (close to 12% walk rate and under 20% strikeout rate in 2021).

Yepez’s 193 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR is leagues ahead of the Pujols/Dickerson combination, which has only been productive because of Pujols. The two have combined for -0.2 fWAR because Dickerson has been worth -0.4. Yepez has also been one of the most productive members of the lineup recently and it’s hard to see him coming out of it.

Takeaways

There are a few takeaways from the early success of these two players. I’ll start with the most obvious. I don’t see a path for DeJong to become a starter again. I know. That’s a shocker. I expect Donovan to see plenty of time until he cools off. Sosa may get the first chance to claim the shortstop but Donovan could play his way into the job. Even if neither of them claim the job, Edman may still get a chance.

Right now, Donovan needs to be playing. It feels like he may get a long look, especially if the team wants to keep Gorman down for a while. That leaves both Sosa and Donovan to play short while both Donovan and Yepez can play the outfield corners. Which leads me to my next point.

Corey Dickerson may become unnecessary soon, especially if he doesn’t improve at the plate. Two younger and better performing options can both play the outfield when needed and both provide more offensive upside and production.

Dickerson only has a one year deal. The St. Louis Cardinals could cut ties with him and not be on the hook for any money next year. If Donovan and Yepez are forcing their way into ABs, I don’t think Dickerson is going to last much longer.

That would make Yepez the starting DH, which he basically is already. The bigger question is what happens if Donovan keeps playing well and Sosa is solid? That’s a good problem to have. The Cardinals could use a too-many-good-players kind of problem.

One thing is clear — the kids have rejuvenated the offense. Yepez instead of Dickerson and Donovan instead of DeJong is a major upgrade. The two rookies are making it so that Marmol can’t not play them. The pair won’t have a 190 wRC+ the whole season but they have shown much more promise than the pair they have replaced and letting them play more could help the offense find it’s groove.

So, let’s let the kids play! Let’s see what they can do.

Thank you all for reading! I won’t be posting again for two weeks because I’m getting married on Saturday and then taking a honeymoon next week. I will be casually following the Cardinals from afar but I will be much more focused on spending time with my soon-to-be wife.

I’ll be back with more in-depth articles (since I’ll be have more time to write with no more wedding planning) in exactly two weeks. Until then, Go Cards!