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What’s Going On with Brendan Donovan?

Brendan Donovan hasn’t been the Brendan Donovan of 2022.

St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

You may recall that I wrote about Brendan Donovan in the offseason because, to me, he was one of the most fun and interesting players on the roster. I hate saying “was” because he still is on the roster but he’s not showing the same skill set that made him so interesting, and so successful, last season.

He hasn’t been bad at the plate by any means as his 100 wRC+ is exactly average, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as many of us St. Louis Cardinals fans probably expected. So, with that in mind, I want to take a look at what’s changed for Donovan and see if we should adjust our expectations for him.

What happened to the plate discipline?

This is my question for Donovan because last year he was 1 of just 7 players in the 90/90 club, as I called it in my offseason article. And by 90/90 club, I mean that he was 1 of just 7 players to rank in the 90th percentile or better in both chase rate and whiff rate.

One of those things has stayed constant as Donovan ranks in the 90th percentile in whiff rate despite an increase of 1.6%, but the other most certainly has not. After chasing just 21.4% of pitches outside the zone last year, Donovan’s chase rate has ballooned to 30.4% through the first month of games this year.

That ranks in just the 32nd percentile.

That’s surprising to me, because, whether accurate or not, I assume that a player’s eye is generally consistent, especially before he turns 30. It’s also surprising because Donovan has always had a good eye, even throughout his minor league career.

In fact, Donovan has never had a single-digit full season walk rate and has comfortably posted walk rates between 11% and 13%. Yet this season, he’s only walking at a paltry 6.6% rate.

That’s catastrophic for someone whose offensive profile is completely built around patience and discipline.

But perhaps the most surprising thing for me is that Donovan is actually seeing fewer pitches in the zone than he did last year. Now, that makes sense, intuitively. If a hitter is free-swinging, a pitcher doesn’t need to live in the zone to get strikes. I understand that. But Donovan is...errrr...was a patient hitter and I expected pitchers to base their strategy around that.

How do you attack a hitter who never swings and doesn’t hit for much power? You pound the zone and make him beat you. And that’s exactly what I predicted would happen to Donovan in my offseason article. I expected hitters to pound the zone and force Donovan to be more aggressive and make him prove his ability to impact the baseball. But, boy, was I wrong.

The exact opposite has happened.

Pitchers have decided to throw even fewer strikes and Donovan countered by swinging more. That’s not exactly a match made in heaven if you ask me. Well...I guess it is for the pitchers, but you get my point.

To make things even worse for Donovan, his swing rate is still below average by 2.6%. Yikes. that means that he’s chasing a lot but not swinging all that often when the pitch is in the zone. to give you the numbers, his chase rate has risen 9% but his in zone swing rate has risen just 4.8%. Ideally, if Donovan were to become more aggressive (like he has), we would want those numbers to be flipped.

He’s become more aggressive but most of that extra aggression comes on pitches out of the zone. And it comes on pitches in one specific spot.

Take a look at Donovan’s swing rates by zone this year.

And now take a look at his swing rates by zone last year.

Do you notice the difference? If you don’t, you need to get your eyes checked because the 2 regions below the zone were blue/purple last year and are dark red this year. In fact, you’ll even notice that his chase rates above the zone are practically the same which means that pretty much the entire 9% increase in chase rate can be attributed to Donovan swinging at more pitches below the zone.

The problem is that Donovan has been awful against pitches below the zone. He rarely makes contact and when he does, he beats the ball into ground.

So, what we need to ask now is...why? The answer to that question determines a lot. Is Donovan simply making a concerted effort to swing more and still trying to find the right balance? Has he simply had one bad month? Is his eye at the plate truly worse?

It’s hard to tell without asking Donovan himself, but I think Donovan has made a concerted effort to swing more and I think that is tied to the change he made to his bat, or specifically, the knob of his bat, or even more specifically, what the switch to the puck knob has caused.

Now, I’m not blaming the puck knob for making Donovan a worse hitter. I’m blaming it for increasing his power, which, I think, in turn, has led to increased aggressiveness. And, to me, it feels like an intentional choice.

The utility man has already hit a new max exit velocity this year (109.1 vs 107) and he hit 4 homers in the spring after hitting just 5 all of last season. He also had a whole offseason to get exit velocity readings. It’s not unrealistic to think that all of these things could lead to Donovan thinking he can do more damage at the plate if he swings more, and, thus, makes contact with more balls.

If that’s true (and it might not be because I don’t know anything), it’s not a good decision.

For starters, it’s hard for a hitter to change his approach, but I would rather Donovan have simply maintained his high walk rate and simply added some extra power to it as opposed to trying to be a completely different hitter.

Donovan isn’t a swing-happy slugger. He’s a patient, grind-it-out-and-get-on-base kind of guy. It would be awesome to see him add power to that profile, but the problem is that he hasn’t added meaningful in-game power and now he’s not taking walks.

In fact, his walk rate has cut in half and his ISO is practically the same. That right there is the cause of a 29 point drop in wRC+.

I also want to point out that, generally, the areas below the zone get filled up with breaking balls and offspeed pitches, which means that Donovan is getting fooled by breakers and changeups. That’s not too overwhelming. A lot of hitters, and especially young hitters, have the same issue.

With Donovan’s extremely patient approach last year, he may have been okay leaving a fastball in the zone and working deeper into the count. But this year, with Donovan being more aggressive, he may be more willing to swing at something that looks like a fastball in the zone but then drops off the table unexpectedly.

To me, this seems like a young hitter attempting to revamp his approach and still trying to figure everything else. I would argue that his approach didn’t need any revamping, but who’s to say he doesn’t give up on the idea?

Now is the time where we see how quickly Donovan can improve his production. If he gives up the idea of swinging more, I expect him to get better quickly. If he continues with the idea, it may be a more gradual improvement as he gets comfortable with this new approach.

Either way, I do think Donovan is a better hitter than he’s shown this year.

Take the puck knob and the power out of the conversation and what’s the one thing Donovan has always been able to do? Walk. So, for Donovan to improve, he simply needs to go back to doing what he does best. That doesn’t seem too bleak now does it?

I said it at the beginning of the season, and I’ll still say it now - 2022 Brendan Donovan with more power is a really good hitter. He’s still that guy.

The problem is that everything is in flux for him and that’s the cause of the low walk rate and the static exit velocity.

The increased aggression explains the lower walk rates but I think it’s also the reason why we’ve seen Donovan’s average exit velocity has stay more or less constant (87.7 mph in 2022, 87.5 mph in 2023) despite an increase in his high end exit velocities. He’s swinging at a lot of bad pitches and making contact with a lot of bad pitches. That’s necessarily going to mean more weak contact, which drags down his exit velocity.

So, the version of Brendan Donovan that runs a double digit walk rate and hits the ball harder is still there, it’s just hidden by a Brendan Donovan with a bad approach. Now it all comes down to Donovan’s ability to adjust

The talent is there, he just needs to figure out how to let it shine. Can Donovan figure out how to swing more without chasing more? That’s the million dollar question. And if he can’t, how long will he continue with this new approach?

The next few months will be fascinating for Donovan. An aggressive Donovan who can limit his chases can be a dangerous hitter. A patient Donovan who never swings is a dangerous hitter. But a Donovan who chases aggressively has been just a league average hitter.

Now we’re just waiting to see which path Donovan chooses.

Thanks for reading, VEB.