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What’s Next for Brendan Donovan

Let’s take a look at what’s next for Brendan Donovan after the OBP-maven had an outstanding rookie year with a unique skill set.

St. Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Brendan Donovan is a unique player. You can tell that simply by watching him but it’s especially clear when you look at the numbers. The gold glove utility man is simply the king of plate discipline.

This tweet is the reason why Brendan Donovan is the next young player I’m examining and it’s really the inspiration behind this whole article. When I see anyone be part of such an exclusive group, I’m immediately interested and start diving into that player. So, naturally, I started by looking at the other 7 names who joined Donovan as part of the group that ended the year in the 90th percentile in both chase rate and whiff rate.

And then I went down a wormhole and looked at every single player to be part of the club in the Statcast era (since 2015). So let’s dive into every player who has finished in the 90th percentile in both whiff rate and chase rate and see if we can derive whether or not Brendan Donovan can sustain his production. And, then, let’s dive a little further and see what he can do to make himself an even better hitter.

Here are the 7 other hitters who finished 90th percentile or better in chase rate and whiff rate:

2022 90/90 Club

Name wRC+ Avg Exit Velocity (mph)
Name wRC+ Avg Exit Velocity (mph)
Yandy Diaz 146 92.2
Alex Bregman 136 88.9
Brendan Donovan 129 87.7
Steven Kwan 124 85.1
Isaac Paredes 116 87.4
J.P. Crawford 104 85.1
Austin Nola 89 89.4
Myles Straw 64 87

You’ll notice that in 2022, 6 of the 8 player on this list finished as above average hitters while only 2 players (Yandy Diaz and Austin Nola) finished with above average exit velocities. This is largely a group that produces through supreme plate discipline and contact ability and Brendan Donovan is certainly a part of that group.

So, in order to figure out what’s next for Brendan Donovan, I want to figure out what separates the Alex Bregmans and Yandy Diazes of the world from the Myles Straws and Joe Paniks (Panik was part of the 90/90 club in 2016, 2018 and 2019 despite being a below average hitter in all 3 years).

The first thing that comes to mind for me is exit velocity. That should be obvious. Generally speaking, it’s better to hit the ball hard than to not hit the ball hard. It’s a pretty simple principle, but let’s see how it holds up among the 37 instances of a player finishing in the 90/90 club since the beginning of the Statcast era in 2015.

90/90 Club Exit Velocities

Group Average Exit Velo Median Exit Velo
Group Average Exit Velo Median Exit Velo
>100 wRC+ 89.3 89.4
<100 wRC+ 87.4 87.0

For reference, an 89.3 mph average exit velocity is about a 55th percentile result while an 87.4 mph average exit velocity is a 20th percentile result.

I hope none of you are surprised that the above league average hitters hit the ball harder than the below average hitters. Elite plate discipline and contact rates are great but exit velocity still matters among players with who lay off balls and hit everything.

So, where does that leave Brendan Donovan? The rookie had an average exit velocity of 87.7 mph last year. That’s a bit too close to the sub-100 wRC+ group for my liking but there are three reasons to be encouraged.

The first is that of the 37 times a player finished in the 90th percentile or better in both chase rate and whiff rate, only 10 times did that player finish the year as a below average hitter. And 6 of those instances came from Joe Panik, Greg Garcia, and Myles Straw who have never been known as great hitters. So besides the whole small sample size thing, there’s also the fact that 3 light, slappy kind of hitters have made up 60% of the bad offensive seasons and I think Brendan Donovan has more to offer at the plate than Panik, Garcia, and Straw.

The second reason is that Donovan has been experimenting with the same puck knob that Paul Goldschmidt and (I think) Nolan Arenado used last year.

Some players love the puck knob and have seen great results with it so maybe Brendan Donovan can be the next player to swing it with great success. And by “swing it with great success”, I mean not swing it because that’s perhaps what Donovan does best - not swing.

And that’s the third reason for optimism with Donovan. Even among hitters with a unique combination of eye and contact, Donovan has an extreme profile. He simply doesn’t swing. His swing rate of 38.1% was a whopping 9% lower than the league average swing rate last year (47.1%). Going back to our list, only 4 players ever landed in the 90/90 club with a lower swing rate than Brendan Donovan, and the list is quite impressive.

Ben Zobrist did it twice, Joe Mauer did it 3 times, Alex Bregman did it 3 times, and Greg Garcia did it once. Garcia may not have been an effective hitter but the other 3 sure were.

So, not only can not swinging be an effective strategy, it’s also the optimal strategy for Brendan Donovan. And the good news is that Brendan Donovan knows that.

He’s not going to crush the ball like Tyler O’Neill when he makes contact, and he knows that. But he also knows that he makes contact really well. So he can, and should, see more pitches because if he gets himself deep into the count or into 2-strike situations, his contact skills are good enough for him to be fine. In fact, he’s more than fine, at least relative to the rest of the league.

In his rookie year, Donovan slashed .222/.352/.285/.637 with two strikes. That may seem underwhelming but let’s focus on the fact that he had a .352 OBP with 2-strikes. That’s absolutely insane. The league average OBP last year .312. And that’s in all count, not just counts with 2-strikes. So, with 2 strikes, Donovan literally had an OBP that was 40 points higher than the average MLB hitter starting from an 0-0 count. That’s unbelievable.

But just to make things even better, the league slashed .168/.242/.263/.505 with two strikes last year. Donovan really blew the rest of the league out of the water when it came to hitting with two strikes, so he can afford to hit in 2-strike counts more often than other hitters. And that brings with it the added benefit of seeing more pitches and earning more walks. That’s crucial for a hitter whose results on contact are limited due to a below average exit velocity.

But this all begs the question: If Donovan won’t swing, will pitchers catch on and start throwing him more strikes? This is another key for Donovan. He needs to prove that he can hit the ball if pitchers start coming in the zone more. Last season 48.7% of the pitches he saw were in the zone which was just a bit more than the league average of 48.5%. i wouldn't be shocked to see that rate tick towards 50% in the upcoming season as pitchers try to combat his style of hitting.

To cite an example, that’s exactly what happened with Greg Garcia. In 2016, his first real major league season, Garcia swung at just 38.8% of the pitches he saw and put up a 111 wRC+, buoyed by a nearly 15% walk rate. it also helped that only 46.6% of the pitches he saw were in the zone. That all changed the next year when pitchers started to attack him more. In 2017, 52.1% of the pitches he saw were in the zone, and then in 2018, that figure rose to 54.2%. He couldn’t overcome that as his wRC+ fell to 95 in 2017 and then 73 in 2018.

This is something Donovan needs to be ready for. I should point out that he did see a (slightly) above average rate of pitches in the zone in 2022 so he has already handled moderate aggression well but I do expect to see pitchers attack him more in 2023 (how much more, I don’t know) and he will need to hit enough to make them back down and start giving him more balls again.

And I think Donovan can do that. His exit velocity numbers may nor be overwhelming, but he can stroke the ball when it’s in the zone.

It’s really the pitches off the plate that weigh down Donovan’s exit velocity numbers, but that’s true of any hitter. Regardless, he has enough juice when he goes after pitches in the zone to get some extra base hits. He really just needs to elevate the ball a bit more. And I’m not recommending that he tries to become the prototypical slugger, but I would like to see him cut down a bit on his nearly 53% ground ball rate, especially since his speed isn’t much to write about.

More line drives and some more fly balls would really help him do some damage when pitchers start getting more aggressive with him. If he can prove that he’s a threat when pitchers come in the zone, then he can get them to back off so he can keep walking at an elite clip.

Now, you may also notice that he doesn’t fare too well when pitchers come in on his hands. That’s another weakness of his, but I will point out that he did actually manage to hit for a high average against inside pitches even if he did struggle to hit them hard.

I have no idea how sustainable that is, but I do know that Donovan is an all fields type of hitter so, to venture a guess, I would say that he probably inside outed a lot of pitches on the hands. I have no idea if that’s accurate because I haven’t bothered to go back and watch all of his at-bats (My laziness is disappointing, I know) but it makes me think that he may be able to fend of the inside portion of the plate well enough to be effective.

So, now that we understand more about Brendan Donovan and how pitchers may work to counter his hitting style, let’s look at where he goes from here.

The first thing I want to see is obvious. I want to see him hit the ball harder and I’m eager to see if the hockey puck can help him do that. At the very least, I love seeing him trying new things to make himself better and I think that bodes well for his chances of becoming an even better hitter, or, at least a hitter able to replicate his success.

And lets not forget that Lars Nootbaar didn’t really start hitting the ball hard until 2021 when he split time between Triple-A and the majors. Donovan adding power is not outside the realm of possibility even if he’s not exactly a power hitter right now.

The second thing I want to see Donovan do is put the ball in the air a bit more, and specifically, to hit more line drives. That should give a jolt to his results on contact and help deter pitchers from pitching him too aggressively.

The third thing I want to see him do is hit the inside pitch better. If a hitter has a hole in his swing, it will get exploited at the major league level. It may not be a huge hole as Donovan still maintained a high average against inside pitches but if a pitcher knows he can go inside and the worst that happens is he gives up a single, he’s going to attack there.

Perhaps the added weight closer to Donovan’s hands with the hockey puck knob will help his bat whip through the zone a bit quicker and help him get to those inside pitches more effectively

The final thing I want to see Donovan do is maintain his patience when possible. That’s the key for him. He’s an OBP-dependent hitter and his OBP is dependent on his walk rate. If he’s swinging more, he’s walking less. It’s as simple as that. He may need to be a bit more aggressive early in the season if pitchers pound the zone more but Donovan’s identity is his discipline and I want to see him stick to that even as he is forced to make adjustments. If he is going to swing more, his swing rate increase needs to be caused by an increase to his in-zone swing rate not his chase rate.

So, for me, the 2023 season is all about seeing if Donovan can add some pop and make counter-adjustments when pitchers adjust to him. He had an outstanding rookie season and has established himself as a top of the lineup table-setter but now we’ll see if Donovan can build on that success and turn himself into a consistently unique force atop the St. Louis Cardinals lineup.

Thanks for reading, VEB! I had a lot of fun with this one. Let me know what you think in the comments and enjoy your Sunday!