The Qu-eye-et Brilliance of Brendan Donovan

© Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

This is Alex’s first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. Alex is a recent honors graduate of Vassar College, where he served as the sports and senior editor of the award-winning Miscellany News. He has also written for PitcherList and Sports Info Solutions, the latter of which he video-scouted for as well. His main interest lies in cognitive psychology, a woefully under-studied area of baseball research. For his senior thesis, he constructed a neural network that predicted pitch speed and location based on early trajectory information; he used the model’s errors to learn more about how batters might integrate a pre-pitch “guess” with their real-time perceptions. He is fascinated by pitch sequencing and is a swinging-strike enthusiast.

Julio Rodríguez. Michael Harris II. Adley Rutschman. We all know the names atop this year’s extraordinary position player rookie class. You have to go back to 2015 for the last time three different first-year hitters each accrued four or more wins; then it was Kris Bryant, Matt Duffy, and Francisco Lindor. Those names should put into perspective just how much baseball has gone by since then. But when Steven Kwan surpassed the 4-WAR mark on Sunday with a three-hit, five-RBI effort, cementing the Guardians’ American League Central crown, this year’s class became the first since 1964 to have four rookies each with four or more wins.

All told, the big four at the top have overshadowed some other stellar performances. Bobby Witt Jr. has joined the 20-20 club already; along with Rodríguez, they make up the first rookie duo to do so since 1987. Jose Siri has authored an excellent defensive season, ranking fifth in the majors in Statcast’s Runs Above Average. While not the age of a traditional rookie, Joey Meneses has come out of nowhere to post a 158 wRC+ across the last two months of the season. And among hitters with at least 400 PAs this year, Brendan Donovan ranks seventh in the majors with a .389 OBP.

Donovan’s on-base ability has been especially excellent for a rookie. Aside from leading this year’s crop, his .389 mark ranks 92nd among the 1,692 rookies who stepped up to the plate at least 400 times in their first season since 1887 (as far back as our leaderboards go). Meanwhile, his 12.6% walk rate ranks 110th while his 2.8 K-BB% (lower is better) is the 24th-lowest among rookies since 2000.

We started tracking advanced plate discipline statistics in 2002. These can give us insight into the approach that has yielded Donovan’s excellent numbers. Since 2002, 283 rookies have come to the plate at least 400 times in a season. Below are Donovan’s ranks, relative to the lowest-ranked. Lower is not necessarily better here, but red cells indicate good numbers and blue poor:

Measuring Donovan’s Approach
Statistic Donovan Rank
O-Swing 85
Z-Swing 12
Z-O 56
Swing% 9
SwStr% 30
CStr% 269

Basically, Donovan doesn’t swing much; he only does so on 38.1% of pitches. I left the color blank for Swing% because a low number there can be either good or bad depending on the hitter. For Donovan, his low Swing% is the source of his on-base ability, as it’s not due to a keen eye. In the table, Z-O denotes Z-Swing% minus O-Swing%, a relative measure that serves as a useful proxy for evaluating a batter’s discipline independent of how often they swing on the whole. Through this lens, Donovan fares poorly. And while he checks in at no. 52 (out of 300) on Statcast’s swing/take leaderboard this season, all of his value comes from laying off chase and waste pitches. On pitches in and around the zone (the heart and shadow zones), Donovan is a net negative. My guess is that, because he spits on a lot of pitches, he avoids swinging at more balls than average but takes more strikes than average.

This tradeoff seems to work for him. Even though his eye isn’t great, his tendency to take allows him to run deep counts, increasing his chances of walking. If he qualified, the 4.18 pitches he sees per plate appearance would rank 13th in all of baseball. And this isn’t because he fouls off a lot of pitches, either; his Foul% ranks 41st-lowest among the 267 hitters with at least 300 PAs this year.

Additionally, Donovan is likely willing to run deep counts because he’s confident that his stellar contact rates will keep him from striking out. While his overall Foul% is low, his two-strike Foul% ranks 37th among the 159 hitters who have seen at least 500 two-strike counts this season. He may be relying too much on his ability to change his approach come these counts, however; his Swing% ranks 111th of 159, leading to a merely average 74th-ranked CStr% (called-strike rate). Sometimes, he gets badly frozen like this, even in 0-2 counts:

Should every hitter take as much as Donovan? At 43%, the number of strikes he sees is actually above the league average (41.3%). This is likely because Donovan has a below-average wOBAcon; he isn’t the most dangerous hitter, so hurlers don’t see a need to pitch around him. Case in point, there is a lot of blue on his Savant page when it comes to his quality of contact metrics. By comparison, Pete Alonso, with his crimson-adorned Savant page, only sees 36.1% of pitches in the zone. Free-swingers like Javier Báez will also see a low Zone% (34.7%). But Alonso and Báez both have swing rates north of 50% because they can barrel up baseballs even when they’re being pitched around.

As my colleague David Laurila noted after interviewing Donovan back in June, the Cardinals’ utilityman sees himself as more of a line-drive hitter. Indeed, 75.5% of his hits this season have been singles; that mark is just 57.4% and 63.5% for Alonso and Báez, respectively. For Donovan, forgoing swings largely means trading some singles for even more walks, a relatively even deal. By contrast, sitting on more pitches means sacrificing more extra base hits for Báez and Alonso; more walks seem less likely to make up for this loss.

Donovan told Laurila that he thinks plate discipline can be taught. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a hitter can be taught to walk more by swinging less. If Donovan were truly able to train himself to be more disciplined, he would likely see more gains in Z-OSwing%. As it stands, however, his approach seems to be working, and might appeal to other low-power, high-contact hitters who wouldn’t mind dealing some of their singles for extra walks. In Donovan’s own words, you have to know who you are as a hitter.

Statistics as of September 26.

Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pitcher List and Sports Info Solutions. He has a degree in psychology and cognitive science from Vassar College, with minors in economics and philosophy. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he clearly struggled with when determining his course of study in college. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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2 months ago

He’s been such a fun player as a Cardinal fan this season. He won’t and absolutely shouldn’t win RoY or anything, but he’s been a significant contributor to a division winner, and I hope he gets some back end ballot votes.