Amid a terrible summer for the St. Louis Cardinals, one player quietly took the league by storm at the plate for two straight months, but a season-ending elbow surgery prevented him from carrying that momentum for the entire year.
Brendan Donovan, fresh off finishing top-3 in Rookie of the Year voting in 2022, got off to a slow start at the plate along with almost the entire Cardinals roster. In his first 149 plate appearances from Opening Day to May 20th, Donovan slashed just .241/.315/.331 with 3 HR, 11 RBI, and an 80 wRC+, quite a bit of regression from the year prior.
I noticed around the end of May something began to click for Donovan. He was getting on base at an elite clip, he began slugging the ball more than he had ever had (something that looked like he was adding to his game in Spring Training), and he was statically a top-17 hitter in all of baseball from that point until the end of his season.
From May 21st until Donovan's last game of the season on July 29th, he slashed .314/.398/.485 with 8 HR and 23 RBI and finished with a 144 wRC+, 17th in baseball over that 54-game sample size. He did all of that while being sidelined from playing the field due to his elbow for the last six or so weeks. Donovan's on-base percentage was 12th and his batting average was 11th in all of baseball during that stretch, and for a guy who many say doesn't have power, he was 47th out of all players in that stretch in slugging percentage as well.
For those of you who are more "counting stats" types, that stretch from Donovan would have led to 22 HR, 64 RBI, and 86 runs scored over 150 games (and if Donovan is batting leadoff the whole, he probably gets more at-bats and leads to a bit higher numbers there as well).
I'm not trying to say Donovan is going to hit 25 home runs next year and be a top-20 hitter in all of baseball, but when I talked to Donovan at Winter Warm-Up last weekend, it's clear that he made a specific adjustment that transformed his play at the plate.
I asked Donovan if he made any changes in May that led to that success at the plate for the remainder of his season, and he pointed to a very clear adjustment that he made that resulted in him doing a lot more damage at the plate and getting back to being an elite on-base threat as well.
"There's always some adjustments", Donovan said. "For me, it was like, I had to make the adjustment to the league, just based off how they were pitching me. My rookie year, I swung at like 11% of first pitches, and then we got something that I just wasn't very trusting and confident in going on pitches early in the count. I was like "Oh let me make them work", but then you're 0-1 every count, and then they're picking and throwing stuff off of that, so they kind of have the edge I guess you could say. So for me, it was like just going up there and trusting that I can get good, intense swings off earlier in counts, and once I started doing that, I think I started turning the corner a bit cause it was a little bit of a rough month..."- Brendan Donovan
So according to Donovan, as the league began to pick up on Donovan as being an overly patient hitter, he began to get more aggressive earlier in counts. I asked @JacobE_STL on X (formerly known as Twitter) if he could do a quick breakdown of Donovan's first two months of the season (the last week of March/April and then May) compared to his final two months of the season (June and July). While Donovan made these changes in May and began to take off at the end of that month, you can see a mindset shift, and productivity shift, from Donovan when you compare the two in the tweet below.
The "worry" with a hitter is that as they try to get more aggressive, they end up swinging at too many "bad pitches" along the way as well. In the case of Donovan, he lowered his chase rate from 23.8% in the first two months to 21.8% in the last two, while swinging at significantly more "hittable pitches" that are in the zone and he can do damage with.
Depending on which Cardinals fan you talk to, some seem to understand Donovan's value to this team, while others think he's a bit overrated. During that over two-month stretch of baseball, Donovan was not only the best hitter on the team, but one of the best in baseball, building off a rookie campaign where he was already almost 30% above league average offensively. I don't expect Donovan to be that good over the course of an entire season, but anywhere close to that and he's easily one of the best leadoff hitters in today's game.
Pair that with Donovan's versatility, and you've got a player who is extremely valuable and vital to the success of this club in 2024 and beyond. Over Winter Warm-Up, I talked about how Donovan was easily one of the players I was most impressed by from my time there. I'm a huge advocate for how good of a player he is, but what became clear to me and other media in the room was that Donovan is a leader in the clubhouse. He's not just one of those guys who people flippantly call a leader, Donovan has been a driver of culture and expectations this offseason, and both Oli Marmol and the players we talked to consistently pointed to Donovan as a guy who made those around him better.
When I asked Marmol about Donovan's name being brought up as a leader in the clubhouse, his face instantly lit up when he heard his name, cracking a smile as he spoke about what it is that Donovan brings to this team from a leadership perspective. He talked about how when it comes to Donovan, it's not so much about a defined leadership role as it is being bought in and invested, and being a guy who cares about what it means to be a Cardinal and getting everyone else on board with that.
Everything about Donovan's makeup points to him being a very successful player for a long time. If you couple that with his strong rookie campaign and the elite performance he put on at the plate for the last 10 weeks of his season, you can see why the Cardinals are so bullish on him. A full season of Donovan will go a long way toward helping this club get back into contention, and it won't be long before everyone sees that.