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Quick ‘N Dirty Analysis: Brendan Donovan

Donovan had a slow start to the season but has flashed more power and has had some bad luck on balls in play.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, Viva El Birdos!

As my life continues to be too busy for much baseball, I’m resurrecting an old article series I started for times such as this. The quick and dirty player analysis!

The goal here is to just glance at the stats of a player, see how they’re doing, find what stands out about their performance, and make a couple of broad statements about their future performance. I tend to pick players who are doing interesting things or have seen a shift in their stats.

That’s why I’ve turned to Brendan Donovan today. He caught my attention when he put in this all-around performance last week:

Donovan is a do-it-all kind of player! But he also had a relatively slow start to the season, particularly in the area of his one nearly elite tool: BB rate. How’s he doing now? What can we project for him for the rest of the season? Let’s find out!

Donovan’s base stats are down significantly from last year. His slash line is .247/.341/.367. That’s good enough for an essentially average wRC+ of 99 and a .314 wOBA. That’s not great. But, honestly, it’s perfectly fine for a 2b’man slash utility player who never had much of a prospect pedigree.

The problem with this line is that Donovan set expectations that exceeded his scouted profile in his rookie season. Last year, in 468 plate appearances, Donovan slashed .281/.394/.379 for a 129 wRC+ and a .349 wOBA. He also, somewhat inexplicably, won the first utility Gold Glove award in the National League. That’s the kind of combination of *defense* and offense on a rookie deal that the club just wasn’t willing to give up to nab their first-choice catcher (Sean Murphy).

What has happened to Donovan between last season and this season?

The rate stats suggest not much is going on. His BB rate started slowly as Donovan was maybe a bit overly focused on his newfound power. His BB% for Mar/Apr was only 6.6% - well down from expectations for Donovan. In May, which is nearly complete, Donovan came roaring back (can you describe a walk rate as a roar? Hmmm… probably not.) He produced a 16.5% on the month. The result is an 11.5% overall BB%, down slightly from 12.8% as a rookie. But it’s climbing and should be at or above last season’s rate by season’s end.

Donovan is showing a slight increase in power. He traveled to Marucci this offseason and procured a puck bat. He flashed significantly more power this spring – far more power than his size indicates he’s capable of. It’s translated a little but probably not as much as anyone hoped. He has five homers so far. He had five homers all of last season. But his ISO is just .120. That’s an improvement on the .097 from ’22 but still far below expectations of even a moderate power hitter. That, along with the decline in his batting average, leaves him with a slug% below last year – .367 vs. .379.

A few more homers and a slight improvement in ISO aren’t affecting his other well-above-average skill. Donovan walks a ton. And he rarely strikes out. His K% is down a hair from last year at 14.8% compared to 15.0% last season.

That’s all the pieces. Like a puzzle, we’ve scattered them onto the table. Now it’s time to start piecing them together. Donovan’s walking at about the same rate as last season. He’s K’ing at about the same rate as last season. He’s slightly improved his power from last season.

So, why is his slash line down from last season?

The answer is simple. His BABIP is down. A lot. Last year, he hit .330 on balls in play with the shift. This season he’s down to .268 on balls in play with no shift. Go figure.

When you see a change like this it’s tempting to say “bad luck”. But we don’t do that ‘round here. Not without first checking his batted ball profile. Is he hitting the ball differently? Has his power-packed spring and new puck knob caused him to try to elevate the ball for more homers at the expense of his normal line drives?

Well, his line drive percentage is down at 20.8% compared to 23.6% last season. But his ground ball rate is also down 48.5% compared to 52.8%. The biggest change is, as assumed, in his flyball rate. He’s gone from 23.6% up to 30.8%.

That somewhat explains the drop in BABIP. Ground balls can sneak their way through an infield defense. Fly balls generally don’t find grass, unless it’s bullpen or batter’s eye grass over the fence. Donovan’s HR/FB% is nearly doubled from last year. He’s at 12.5% compared to 6.6%. That’s a good thing but it doesn’t count in BABIP.

However, he’s also not hitting the ball any harder on average. His average exit velocity – not a stat I love, but I’ll use it here – is 87.9 this season compared to 87.7 last season. His 90th percentile exit velocity – which shows how hard he hits the balls on batted ball events that form the heart of a player’s production – is up by 2 mph. That’s notable. It’s giving him more barreled balls, despite a stable average exit velocity.

So, more fly balls and fewer ground balls and line drives are leading to a drop in BABIP, which is cutting into his slugging %, making him less productive overall despite more productive contact when it matters.

After years of doing this, I don’t believe that the relatively slight change in his batted ball profile should be making such a significant difference in his BABIP and, ultimately, his wRC+. The decline in production types that contribute to batting average should be more than offset by the increase in barrels, 90th percentile exit velocity, and his improved power. Homers mean more to offensive production than seeing-eye singles, especially when BBs and Ks are neutral.

My gut tells me that Donovan’s stats should be better than they are.

Let’s check my gut over at Baseball Savant, where they have some really great x stats – expected stats or extrapolated stats. These stats take batted ball data and project a slash line, telling us what a batter’s hitting profile should mean for his stat line and what’s gone right/wrong for him on the actual field of play.

2023 Actual vs. (x) Expected Production Stats:
BA: .247 vs. .255
SLUG%: .367 vs. .394
wOBA: .314 vs. .333

Every category is down from where he should be. Now let’s throw 2022 into the mix.

2022 Actual vs. (x) Expected Production Stats:
BA: .281 vs. .266
SLUG%: .379 vs. .365
wOBA: .349 vs. .339

Ok! Now we’re getting somewhere. Every category was up from where he should have been last season. He was lucky. Which we see in his BABIP.

In ‘22, with a .330 BABIP, Donovan overperformed his Statcast-indicated production levels. Good luck.

This year, with a .268 BABIP, Donovan is underperforming his Statcast-indicated production levels. Bad luck.

But because of a relatively small change in BB rate, K rate, and a batted ball type that pretty much evens out, the expected results for Donovan should have been about the same. Donovan should be a .333 wOBA hitter this year. He should have been a .339 wOBA hitter last year.

Donovan is the same hitter he’s been. He just hasn’t been that hitter because of one poor month or results.

That shows up in his Wins Above Replacement. Donovan has been worth .8 fWAR on the season. He’s on pace for 546 plate appearances and 2.4 fWAR. That’s down from his 2.7 fWAR last season in just 468 PAs. That difference, as indicated above, is largely based on his BABIP.

Now, let’s look forward.

Can Donovan improve on that over the final two-thirds of the season? Some will depend on what his BABIP looks like for the rest of the season. That’s a story we’ve told before.

During the 2010s, the Cardinals frequently made good use of high BABIP players. They were a bit more unstable than your power-based superstars, like Pujols and Holliday, but the club could usually find a way to help these players translate minor league BABIP numbers to the majors, squeezing every ounce of production out of players who probably should have been worse than they were. Who am I talking about? Jon Jay. Allen Craig. Matt Carpenter. David Freese. Probably a few more but those are the important names.

If you’re interested in another quick ‘n dirty stats study, go look at their minor league BABIPs and see how well and how long the Cardinals were able to help those players retain their batted ball “luck”. Results vary.

Then look at what skills made the difference for these BABIP-centered players. Why, for example, was Matt Carpenter able to hold on when his BABIP no longer played up? The answer is simple: he had other elite skills. Like the ability to draw walks. And he had defensive versatility. David Freese? Jon Jay? They also played demanding defensive positions; their offensive inadequacies were still acceptable for their place on the diamond. They could survive seasons where the BABIP gods demanded their comeuppance.

That’s where I circle back to Donovan. Donovan is the same kind of high BABIP player. He fits pretty good in that group of names. But he also has offensive skills that aren’t exclusively reliant on balls in play. He also has a great batting eye. He will generate a lot of walks. He doesn’t K. He has above average bat control. There are good signs at the top end of his exit velocity numbers. He has defensive versatility. He can play demanding defensive positions.

Donovan’s BABIP, at worse, will begin to even out. He’s too good of a hitter for it to not come back to .300. And fast. I am not convinced it will stop there, despite the historical tendency for BABIP to even out over time. Once a few more balls start to drop in for him the batting average component of his slash line, his wOBA, and wRC+ will begin to climb. If he can retain his increase in power, then it will rise that much faster and further.

As long as Donovan can stay healthy and doesn’t get relegated to the outfield or a DH role because of need or the performance of others, which would dig into his positional adjustments, I think he’ll finish the season with the same fWAR as last year, an fWAR that was slightly better than it should have been. This time, he’ll have earned it.

Final verdict? Donovan will at least be what he should have been last year by expected stats. You can bank on that. However, if he can rediscover a higher-than-average BABIP based on his legitimate hitting skill, and continue to provide slightly improved power – and that also seems real – he should improve on his expected stats and climb back up to his actual performance in ’22, establishing his baseline as an everyday, above average player.

That’s Brendan Donovan. He’s at least what he is. And could be a bit more. Not so quick and dirty this time because we ran into some interesting stuff… but a positive result all the same!