Cardinals Rookie Brendan Donovan Believes in Line Drives

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Brendan Donovan knows who he is as a hitter. The St. Louis Cardinals rookie is at his best when he’s hunting line drives, and that approach has been working like a charm. Two months into his big-league career, the 25-year-old is slashing .315/.426/.448 — with 14 doubles and one home run — in 197 plate appearances. Moreover, his 146 wRC+ is tops among qualified first-year players.

A left-handed hitter whom the Cardinals selected in the seventh round of the 2018 draft out of the University of South Alabama, Donovan is coming off a 2021 season that saw him climb from High-A to Triple-A, then excel in the Arizona Fall League. That meteoric rise continued this spring. Donovan earned a promotion to St. Louis in late April, and all he’s done since arriving is spray line drives. It’s what he does.

Donovan discussed his swing and approach when the Cardinals visited Fenway Park earlier this month.

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David Laurila: How have you developed as a hitter since coming into pro ball?

Brendan Donovan: “We made a change in our hitting department — Jeff Albert, Russ Steinhorn, and those guys came in — and I was someone that made contact, but it wasn’t always quality contact. What we did is put me into a better body posture, better positioning, more tilt over the plate. I learned how to load the back hip a little better and flatten out my path. From there, it’s basically, ‘Let’s just try to get on plane, and see how long we can stay on plane.’ That’s helped me with fastballs up, and given me more adjustability on breaking balls and changeups, because I’m in the zone longer.

“I’m not a guy that chases the home run. Over the course of the season, I’ll hit my homers — I had 12 last year in the minor leagues, which is decent; not a ton of pop — but I mostly just try to make quality contact. There’s hard-hit percentage, and I obviously want to hit balls hard, but if I hit it 95 [mph] on the ground, that’s not great. I want to hit line drives.”

Laurila: You mentioned a flatter bat path. Fly balls presumably aren’t your goal?

Donovan: “I’ve always hit line drives. I’m not hitting the ball 115 mph — I’ve got one at 110 this year — and if I start hitting more fly balls, then I don’t have success. I start flying out, whereas if I can hit line drives, head-high line drives in the gaps, I’m going to hit doubles. I’m going to be on base. With that approach, I’m going to hit more balls square.

“I say ‘flatter,’ because I have more of a vertical bat angle. When you go to swing, if the bat doesn’t connect back here, you’re not going to be in the zone until roughly before contact. In college, we had metal bats and I was trying to drive the ball. I was trying to hit home runs, because I could. But I think that was counterproductive. Knowing me — knowing my swing and the way I play the game — I don’t think that was a good idea. When I got into pro ball and started to see some analytics and numbers, we started to make some changes that will make me more successful.”

Laurila: What were the specific physical adjustments?

Donovan: “The barrel swings with the shoulders, right? If you’re disconnected, it doesn’t swing with the shoulders. So for me it was loading more, getting more tilt over the plate, putting me in a more athletic position. If you look at the most athletic positions in sports… I mean, if you put yourself in this position, and you learn how to internally rotate your back hip, you create some space, which allows you to turn behind the baseball.

“I try to rotate, stay behind, and stay inside the ball. Those are my cues. I don’t want to think about pushing my hands, or anything like that. I think rotate.”

Laurila: You wouldn’t consider yourself a hands-y hitter…

Donovan: “I think people will consider someone that doesn’t hit a ton of home runs a hands-y hitter, but if you look at the things that I do… I’m just not as big as some other guys. I’m not a smaller guy, but again, I don’t hit the ball 115 mph. I see myself as more of a rotational hitter.”

Laurila: Are you generally trying to let the ball travel?

Donovan: “My direction is more to the left of the batter’s eye on fastballs, because that gives me a better chance to stay out in front on off-speed stuff. It just goes back to my game. For me, going up there and trying to get the head out would be counterproductive. I need to use the whole field. I’m also always on the fastball, all the way from 0-0 to 3-2. Unless I have a reason not to, I’m on that heater, and I’m always trying to go to the big part of the field.”

Laurila: What are your thoughts on plate discipline? Is that something that can be trained, or is mostly just innate?

Donovan: “I think you can train it. My college coach would stand behind the turtle when we were taking batting practice, and he would make us stay in the middle of the plate. ‘Don’t swing at the ball at the letters, push the ball down, stay over the middle.’ So I think you can train it, but it definitely takes a lot of discipline not to swing at balls that aren’t in your damage zone. And I am trying to do damage. Even though I’m not trying to hit home runs… like I said earlier, I’m trying to do damage on a line. I don’t want to try to do damage in the air, because for me, those turn into long outs. In the end, you have to know who you are as a hitter.”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, Tim Hyers, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Brent Rooker, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Luke Voit, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke, Kevin Youkilis.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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jonseals
3 months ago

Donovan is the real deal. Watching him everyday, the only problem is his defense.

He’s above average at second, decent at third, and below average everywhere else. His speed helps in the outfield but he ends up flailing almost everywhere.

That being said, he’s pretty much the perfect utility man. He’ll start everyday and give a different player a day off.