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The Rise of Brendan Donovan

Mr. Versatile has turned himself into a star and a key piece in St. Louis’s future

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a season to forget for the Redbirds, with their on-field play yielding the worst win-loss record in my 23 years as a fan. Still, I try to look for the silver lining, and the franchise’s crop of young, cost-controlled talent provides an exciting foundation for the next generation of Cardinal baseball.

One such name is Brendan Donovan, who was a seventh-round pick in the 2018 draft and has quickly blossomed into one of baseball’s best utility men. A stellar rookie season saw him notch a 129 wRC+ and boast Swiss Army Knife-like versatility; he’s back in 2023 with added thump in his bat and a chance to be one of the game’s best all-around players.

The Alabama native struggled out of the gate this season, but his hard work last Winter is finally paying off. Brendan’s max exit velocity is up two ticks to 109 MPH, right on par with the league average.

It’s rare to see a middle-infielder add that kind of raw power, and it’s turned Donnie into an All-Star caliber bat. His 40.8 HardHit% at the time of writing ranks fourth amongst all qualified second basemen this year. While hitting the ball harder has done wonders for him, it would be unfair not to mention the many other improvements that have morphed him into a stud.

Improved Out-Of-Zone Swing Efficiency

Before I go any further I wanted to explain a couple of concepts. Look at the difference between chase% and in-zone swing% from overall swing%, which are clearly better for Donovan since the beginning of June. Depending on a guy’s swing % his O-swing% or Z-Swing% could be higher or lower, but how would you go about controlling for overall aggressiveness (or lack thereof) at the plate? What about grading his true overall zone contact frequency?

For example, Nolan Arenado and Tim Anderson are respectively running 33.3% and 33.5% O-Swing%, but their overall Swing% are 48.5% and 52.4%, respectively.

Nado has a higher proportion of his swings out of the zone, and because we’d generally like to avoid chasing at any cost, Anderson can be roughly considered the more disciplined hitter even though they’d rank closely to one another on a traditional chase leaderboard.

The same works for Z-Swing%, just the other way around since the value is higher than Swing%. A player with a higher Z-Swing% relative to his overall number of swings is considered to be a more efficient swinger because he’s avoiding chasing and isolating for the zone as much as he can.

Of course, these are imperfect quasi-metrics, and there are caveats as to why a player might chase more or swing in the zone less, such as a player being so good at hitting that he intentionally fishes for the ball regardless of where it’s pitched. These, however, at least better put into perspective O-Swing% and Z-Swing% relative to Swing%.

Brendan Donovan Plate Discipline Metrics

Date O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Swing%-O-Swing% Z-Swing%-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr% BB%
Date O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Swing%-O-Swing% Z-Swing%-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr% BB%
3/30/2023-6/5/2023 27.80% 61.40% 41.70% 13.90% 19.70% 79.40% 93.40% 87.90% 5.00% 11.40%
6/6/2023-7/6/2023 24.40% 66.10% 42.60% 18.20% 23.50% 62.30% 93.70% 83.50% 7.00% 6.20%
2023 Season-Wide Player Average 26.80% 63.00% 42.00% 15.20% 21.00% 74.60% 93.50% 86.50% 5.70% 9.60%
2023 Season-Wide League Average 31.70% 68.50% 47.10% 15.40% 21.40% 62.30% 85.50% 76.50% 11.10% 8.60%
2022 Player Average 23.20% 57.50% 37.80% 14.60% 19.70% 72.10% 92.90% 85.60% 5.40% 12.80%

Now to Donovan. His keen eye at the plate has been his main calling as a big leaguer so far; he’s consistently able to extend at-bats and draw walks at an impressive clip. You’ll also notice improvements in his contact rates.

Something that pops out immediately is Donovan’s drastic difference in out-of-zone swing metrics. While his true chase rate is better as of late, you’ll also notice he’s not making contact on the shadow nearly as much as he was before. This season, he ranks 80th out of 150 qualified hitters in chase%-Swing%.

We saw this in the first chart. Donnie’s O-Contact% was higher in the first portion of the season, but he’s cut down his chase rate while still improving his contact quality when he is forced to nip at the outside part of the plate. This has allowed his overall xwOBACON to improve as a whole.

An 11.4% BB% should come as no surprise because this was out of the zone, so obviously he’s going to spit on some pitches and draw walks, something he’s always done very well.

Traditional batting average is ok in this instance instead of a power stat, because not many hitters are muscling pitches out of the zone for extra bases. Any ability to manipulate the barrel out of the strike zone for tangible production as well as Brendan has recently is particularly impressive, even if it’s just for singles.

The bottom line is, even though he’s whiffing out of the zone more and walking less in the latter date range, his quality of contact is far better when he does connect the barrel. Donovan is also swinging more in the zone than out, so weak hits that were once routinely vacuumed by fielders are now barreled up more frequently, thus an increase in production.

Better Contact Quality By Pitch Type

A look into his production by pitch type helps support this. I used his xwOBACON instead of his regular xwOBA because his whiff% is already very impressive, so I’m not worried about any discrepancy existing between pitches he does versus does not make contact with.

Brendan Donovan xwOBACON By Pitch Type And Date Range

Pitch Type xwOBACON (3/30-6/5) xwOBACON (6/6-7/6) Season-Wide League Average
Pitch Type xwOBACON (3/30-6/5) xwOBACON (6/6-7/6) Season-Wide League Average
Fastball 0.363 0.481 0.391
Offspeed 0.369 0.368 0.353
Breaking Ball 0.313 0.388 0.363

Brendan’s doing more damage against fastballs and breaking balls now, although compared to the league average he’s always been a remarkable changeup hitter. Overall, swinging more at fastballs and breaking balls in the zone while laying off pitches outside have helped improve his discipline and contact numbers this year.

Increased SweetSpot%

Aside from hitting the ball with more authority this season and in recent weeks, Brendan has done a great job lifting the ball for line drives and deep fly balls.

2023 Brendan Donovan Launch Angle Distribution Table

Launch Angle Range (°) Frequency %
Launch Angle Range (°) Frequency %
[-72 - -10) 19.7
[-10 - 8) 25
[8-32] 40.4
[12-24] 18.9
(32-68] 14.9

Donovan’s found the optimal launch angle range all season long, attesting to his elite bat-to-ball skills which he’s now combining with added bat speed for improved production. His 40.4% SweetSpot% ranks 25th amongst all qualified hitters this season.

Spray Distribution Still A Question Mark

Donovan’s 46.7 % HardHit% since 6/6 is 4th amongst all 2B league-wide, and he’s depositing the ball fairly evenly around the field throughout the field as of late.

Interestingly enough, he’s still doing damage to all fields, which is a product of his added power this offseason. I’d like to see him drive the ball more pull-side, as a hitter with his kind of juice can only do so much damage by spraying if he’s not shortening the field as much as you’d like.

Added Defensive Versatility

Donovan’s ability to play multiple positions at a high level has kept him around enough for his power to catch up to his contact skills. He’s not proficient at any one spot, but Brendan’s played at least one game at six different positions, which has value on its own.

Despite this versatility, you’ll notice he’s recorded -5 OAA for the season. -4 of these came at first base, so while he struggles at one position, he makes part of his living being a league-average glove at five others.

Brendan is not the greatest lateral athlete, which shows up in his inability to easily vacuum grounders in either direction. He’s a -3 OAA moving to his left at first, and a -2 moving to his right at second; it’s clear Brendan has trouble guarding the line and tending to grounders up the middle.

The easy fix would be to make Donovan the last resort at first, yielding to the likes of Alec Burleson or another capable defender. However, it’s not the end of the world if he never learns to play the position since there are few who can even play the five he’s decent at.


The Max Muncy of this generation, Brendan Donovan has rounded out his game this offseason with added power and is now arguably the best utility player in baseball. I think his role on the team is clear going forward, filling in wherever someone needs a day off or at DH if everyone is fully healthy.

John Mozeliak mentioned that his staff was looking to reconstruct the roster in a way that makes them competitive for 2024 and beyond. This being said it’s highly unlikely that any cost or team-controlled talent will be departing the Gateway City anytime soon. Donovan and anyone with more than a year of team control left are expected to stay barring a blockbuster move.

His presence also makes Tommy Edman tradeable should the Cardinals venture out for starting pitching in the next two weeks. I personally think it’s a luxury to have two of the best utility guys in the game, but if it means plugging one or more holes in the rotation, moving Tommy may not be a bad idea

Donovan is a special player. He has a spot on the infield long-term and could be an All-Star in 2024 if he continues putting it all together. His grit has made him a fan favorite in St. Louis, and I can’t wait to watch him play for years to come.

Be sure to follow @adamakbani on Twitter for up-to-date news and analysis on the St. Louis Cardinals!