Brendan Donovan, but With Homers?

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a reader of this site, you probably know that spring training results don’t carry much weight. If you’re really invested in spring outcomes, try exploring them on a rate basis, as those metrics seem to provide the most signal. But what I’m most interested in during the spring are the underlying characteristics that drive outcomes, and often, those characteristics are much stickier than pure results.

Notching high exit velocities in-game, for example, can be thought of as a player tapping into their top-end strength. It can be tough to discern fact from fiction among the countless “best shape of his life” reports, but I figured there might be something to Brendan Donovan’s offseason adjustments when I saw him obliterate a home run to right field in his first spring plate appearance, 105.5 mph off the bat:

Now, 105.5 mph isn’t light-tower power, but it’s notable coming from the slap-hitting utilityman. After posting an ISO over .139 just once across the four minor league stops where he had at least 100 plate appearances, that mark dropped to a paltry .097 in Donovan’s big league debut. And he hit all of three balls harder than 105.5 mph in the majors last year, none of them going for homers, en route to posting an eighth-percentile barrel rate. Ouch.

But Donovan proceeded to mash another homer in his second spring game, this one 99.9 mph off the bat — another barrel given its 31-degree launch angle. He also singled on a 96.2 mph grounder. While he’s only gotten one hit in 12 at-bats since that second game, it came on a 102.6 mph liner; stuff like that means more to me than a few O-fers in spring training.

I wasn’t the only one who took note of Donovan’s performance this spring: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch chronicled his offseason adjustments in a March 3 profile. It turns out that Donovan was the fourth (current or former) Cardinal to undergo an analysis at Marucci Sports’ Baseball Performance Lab in the last couple years, joining Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Matt Carpenter. There, Donovan learned that he had more power in the tank.

The most obvious change he’s made to tap into that latent explosiveness is to start more upright in the box:

Last year, he would begin already slightly crouched, knees bent:

He found that, rather than passively leaning into his crouch before the pitch’s release, he could generate more power by utilizing the force wrought by the act of getting into a crouch. So he integrated that act into his swing. But that wasn’t the only change Marucci had Donovan implement — they also had him pick up a new bat.

This is when my eyes really widened: that’s exactly what Marucci had Carpenter do last year, a change underlying his improbable run with the Yankees. Now, Donovan asserted in the Post-Dispatch piece that he’s still a line drive hitter. But while I don’t quite expect a Carpenter-esque .422 ISO from Donovan (or anyone, for that matter) in his sophomore season, there are some important similarities between the two lefty-swinging, multipositional Cardinals draftees that lead me to believe Donovan might be downplaying his potential for a power breakout, and how much it might benefit him.

For starters, Carpenter also profiled as a low-power, high-OBP guy in the minors; he topped out at a .172 ISO in Double-A. In his first full season in the majors, he hit 11 homers in 717 plate appearances; Donovan cranked five in 468 last year. But the more striking similarity between those two years lies in the pair’s approach at the plate:

Donovan vs. Carpenter

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% Zone%
Carpenter (2013) 21.8 55.5 37.1 88.8 45.3
Donovan (2022) 23.2 57.5 37.8 85.6 42.6

The O-Z difference and overall swing rate are almost identical. The contact rates diverge, but even nine years ago pitchers were missing significantly fewer bats, so that makes sense. Donovan would have finished 17th in the league in contact rate last year had he qualified, while Carpenter came in at 13th in 2013. What’s more surprising is that Carpenter saw more pitches in the zone. Mind you, this is the year he hit 55 doubles despite the low home run total; Donovan hit just 21 last year.

Ben Clemens pointed out that unless he develops more power, Donovan is likely to see the David Fletcher treatment next season, wherein pitchers pound the zone. Perhaps word of his offseason tweaks are meant to scare opposing pitchers off of this strategy. More likely though, Donovan is trying to preempt their switch-up, a move that I’d encourage.

Last fall, I wrote about how it made sense for Donovan to keep the bat on his shoulder in 2022 — not only because his excellent contact rate could save him when the count got to two strikes, but also because as a singles hitter, swinging didn’t meaningfully increase his potential for something better than a walk. If that remains the case in 2023, and pitchers pour in the strikes, Donovan might be doomed for Fletcherian production.

But he can also take the Carpenter route. After his 55-double season, Carpenter’s production dipped in 2014. Surprisingly, he had dropped his swing rate even further, down to 32.8%, and his zone rate had held steady at 45.3%, further foretelling what awaits Donovan should he choose to double down on his passivity. Carpenter rebounded the next season, though, both by swinging for the fences and swinging more often before the zone-pounding pitchers could catch on.

Carpenter bashed 28 homers in 665 plate appearances in 2015, three more than he had in his first 1,785 plate appearances. Sure, shooting for higher launch angles had him whiffing more, but he had plenty of surplus contact rate to spare, and it was worth it to turn some of those doubles into homers. Donovan also has a lot of contact rate to spare and at 26, he can get a head start on Carpenter by making a change the latter didn’t implement until he was 29.

The difference in gap power between the two still stands. While he hasn’t hit any doubles this spring, the new bat and stance just might be the key to unlocking Donovan’s doubles, especially if he chooses to maintain his line-drive-first mindset. In the future, if he eventually opts for more loft, the home runs might come more consistently. But for now, his work in the lab makes me confident he’ll be able to stave off a sophomore slump regardless of his swing path.

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