Is Brendan Donovan For Real?

By now, everyone in Cardinal Nation has heard of the wonder kid of the St. Louis Cardinals. However, it was a surprise wonder kid. A player with Devil Magic, as they say. Many people thought the wonder kid this year would be Nolan Gorman (who has played well) or Matthew Liberatore (who has had a cup of joe), but instead Cardinal Nation has been taken by storm by a man of many gloves, as it were: Brendan Donovan.


There has been much written about Brendan Donovan starting at many different positions on the field, as he has started multiple games at first base, second base, shortstop, third base, left field, and right field. His start has been phenomenal at the plate, in particular, for the Cardinals. But is he for real? Bernie Miklasz seems to think so.


First, let's get to know Donovan a bit. Our own Birds On The Black personality, Kyle Reis, wrote Donovan up as his #7 Cardinals prospect prior to the 2022 season. Kyle and I also talked about him in this podcast, if you missed it, back prior to the season's commencement. Let's look at an excerpt of what "Kyle [had] been trying to tell us" about Brendan Donovan for multiple seasons now:

"Not only is Brendan Donovan a Major League caliber hitter right now, he's also a fun blend of old school and new school baseball."

I think the statistics bear this out, as Brendan Donovan might be the first of the Jeff Albert philosophy coming up through the minors that has made it all the way to the majors. In that linked piece, I boil Albert's philosophy, as best I could figure it, down to:

  1. Look for specific pitches early

  2. Broaden slightly with 1 strike, and

  3. With 2 strikes be that guy who can foul pitches off, see the ball well, and go with what's given to you when you force them to throw you one can handle.

I think that Albert's philosophy with 0 and 1 strike is that new school mentality of doing damage with each and every pitch. I think some Cardinals hitters have taken that philosophy too far - Matt Carpenter was one of them, and he refused to listen to his coaches to get back to his normal. At least, that's my take on how the statistics bore out for him and then his comments in the offseason. You see the Cardinals have some of the highest pull percentages in the majors the last couple of seasons. That's in part two things.

  1. The Cardinals are trying to do damage.

  2. The Cardinals have one of the lowest K rates in the majors because they swing earlier and more often than a lot of teams.

If the team is trying to do damage early in counts, then them not even getting to 2-strike counts would lead to them attempting to pull the ball more often because they are in the "do damage" counts more often. (Whether the Cardinals have actually "done damage" in those counts is something that can be debated hotly.)


Getting out of that brief aside, how does this pertain to Brendan Donovan? Well, Donovan has done a great job of using all fields. He really has. Fangraphs data has him going to the opposite field 32% of the time and to center field 32% of the time. Donovan also has pulled the ball 35.9% of the time - quite a new school approach, although not Matt Carpenter's 49.2% from 2020-present. With 0 strikes and 1 strike, Donovan's percentage of pulled pitches goes up to 37.1%. With two strikes, he pulls the ball only 25.9% of the time, using more of the field in an attempt to just get on base - which is a part of that philosophy of Jeff Albert's that I laid out above.


Furthermore, those percentages above are the percent of batted balls. If we look solely at percent of pitches seen being pulled, he pulls 14.8% of 0 or 1 strike pitches seen; whereas when there are two strikes, he pulls 9.2% of 2 strike pitches seen. Lastly on this note, with two strikes against him, Brendan Donovan puts 74.1% of pitches seen in play to the opposite field or up the middle. With zero or one strike against, that number is just 62.9%. I think that is a stark contrast of old school and new school wrapped up in one player.


However, look at the old school hitter in him there! That's just fantastic hitting, period. We're talking Tony Gwynn style of hitting. But wait, there's new school in there, too! Remember how he pulls all those balls (in comparison) when he has zero or one strike? Let's look at a statistic called Isolated Slugging for a moment (or ISO).

"In baseball, isolated power or ISO is a sabermetric computation used to measure a batter's raw power. One formula is slugging percentage minus batting average. The final result measures how many extra bases a player averages per at bat." - (Wikipedia definition)

Brendan Donovan has a .143 ISO with zero to one strike. However, with two strikes, Donovan has an .077 ISO. His ISO doubles when he's trying to do damage. Interestingly, though, Donovan still has a .242 batting average with two strikes. Let's put that in perspective. A .242 batting average is literally the exact MLB league average right now. Brendan Donovan is a league average hitter (by batting average) when he is down to two strikes. That's compared to the league's overall, not the league with two strikes on them! Even better, his on-base percentage (OBP) with two strikes is a ridiculous .384. League average OBP is .311 in any count. Furthermore, league average hitting with two strikes is a batting average of just .174 and an OBP of just .247! Wow. Go Donovan, go!


Kyle might be right. Brendan Donovan is a fun blend of old school and new school baseball. However, how else could we tell that Brendan Donovan is "for real" - that Brendan Donovan has some staying power. He will likely not hit .311/.422/.416/.838 (good for a 145 OPS+ and 146 wRC+) for his major league career. But if Kyle's right, this kid just knows how to hit. He's shown that in his small sample start in the majors.

If Donovan keeps controlling the strike zone like he has thus far early in his career, he could very likely be somewhere between those gaudy stats above and league average - still a productive player. So far, Donovan has been a slightly plus hitter on pitches over the heart of the plate (the obvious strikes), he has been a slightly minus hitter on pitches that are in the shadow zone (those pitches that umpires really must decide ball/strike on most (basically the width of the ball on or off the plate)), but where he has really shined is on "chase" pitches and "waste" pitches. He just doesn't swing at them. He's well above league average in both of those two places, allowing him to get into hitters counts and be much more selective and get on base much more often.


Not only that, but Donovan has been good against nearly every pitch type he's seen. He's only spent a third of a season in the majors and yet has already faced four-seam fastballs (+5 run value), sliders (+5 run value), change ups (+1 run value), sinkers (+1 run value), cutters (-2 run value), curveballs (+0 run value), and splitters (+1 run value). He has really excelled most at hitting fastballs and change ups hard, while simply doing a great job of either laying off of sliders or blooping them in.

 

So we've talked about all of the good things - at least for now - that Donovan does on the field. What words of caution do we have about Donovan to answer the question "Is he for real?" Well, Donovan's Statcast data is not overly impressive...and yet still semi-impressive. Let me explain.


Brendan Donovan only has a 1.6% barrel rate. League average is 6.7%. Many of the best hitters have 10+%. Donovan's average exit velocity is just 86.4 mph, two below the league average of 88.4. That puts him in the 13th percentile. Donovan's max exit velocity is in just the 18th percentile as the hardest he has hit the ball is 104.5 mph. Donovan hits way too many ground balls, as Kyle mentioned in his prospect article linked above that any statistician would find in doing an analysis of Donovan.


And yet, Donovan has a top 10% wOBA in the game. Donovan has an average (53rd percentile) xwOBA to go along with that - meaning that Donovan's numbers could drop, but he won't be worse than average if he keeps hitting the ball like he has. Donovan just hasn't struck out much and walks a ton - the dude just battles - as he is at least 75th percentile in both of those categories. Donovan's whiff rate (or lack thereof) is elite, at 90th percentile. Donovan's chase rate is also in the 68th percentile.


Another good note is Donovan's expected batting average (xBA). While the league is at an xBA of .246, Donovan's is much higher at .276. Now, that's still 35 points lower than he is currently hitting, but what that doesn't take into account is the direction in which Donovan is hitting the ball.


Why would that matter? Well, when Donovan has faced a regular defensive infield (no shift, 82% of the time), he has a spray chart that looks like this:


Notice on that spray chart that he really uses the entire field still, but there's a fairly large clump of ground balls to the right side - where there's more of an opening in those situations. When Donovan has faced an infield shift (18% of the time) he has a spray chart that looks like this:


There are still too many ground balls to the right side (against the shift) for my liking here, but look how many balls he hits to the opposite field (and how often they go in for a hit!!!). Now let's look at them side by side, with all of the outs eliminated - to see where he has done damage and what that damage looks like a bit more easily.


On the left, you can see that he has plenty of doubles and a homer and they are sprayed all around the field. However, the largest clump is that pulled down the line variety, with 5 of his 14 doubles (11 with no shift) and his one homer coming when the opposition is not putting a shift on him. On the right, when he's been shifted, his hits have mostly been to left field - all but two. One of his other two was more to center than it was pulled.


The only true negative (statistically) to Donovan's game is his defense. According to Baseball Savant, his OAA is a -5 (that's negative 5). He's been a huge positive (5% success rate added) at first base, but everywhere else he's been anywhere between slightly worse than league average (in LF and at SS) to much worse than league average (-5% success rate) at 2nd base and (-8% success rate) in RF.


To exhaust our advanced defensive statistics options, DRS has him as well above average thus far at third base and average or below everywhere else. UZR has him as above average at 2B, 3B, LF, and RF while below average at 1B and SS. I trust OAA much more (minus first base and catcher defense).


Keep in mind, this is a 25 year old who has been asked to play at least 4 full games at 6 different positions at the major league level in his first 42 starts and 58 games played in the field. While he was asked to play all 6 of those same positions in the field at the minor league collegiate levels, he had the following amount of innings played at each position professionally prior to coming up to the majors:

  • 1B: 23 starts, 218 2/3 innings

  • 2B: 130 starts, 1,101 2/3 innings

  • 3B: 40 starts, 348 2/3 innings

  • SS: 10 starts, 86 innings

  • LF: 17 starts, 140 innings

  • RF: 2 starts, 18 innings

Keep in mind that a full major league season is ~1,400 innings in the field. He didn't have that at a single position in the minors. To be gold glove eligible at any position in the field, one must play 713 innings at that specific position in the field that season. In his two years of the minors he had enough innings at 2B to be eligible in a single season at the MLB level at that one position. If you combine the innings from the other 5 positions, he is only eligible by less than 100 innings.


In any case, Brendan Donovan simply hasn't played enough to be comfortable at positions in the minors much less excel at them in the toughest league in the world. If you believe Kyle Reis, which I typically do, he'll likely be average-ish at any position he actually gets to learn through doing often at the major league level.


Yes, I believe that Brendan Donovan is "for real."