WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Considering the stellar first season authored by Cardinals utility ace Brendan Donovan -- one in which he led all MLB rookies in on-base percentage and became the only first-year player in franchise history to win a Gold Glove -- human nature would seem to strongly suggest he not change a thing.
Same pregame meals, same stance, same bats and the same bag full of the four gloves he used while playing six positions to become a do-everything godsend for the Cardinals.
However, staying the same and refusing to work on his craft belies Donovan’s nature as a gritty player and as someone whose success is a direct result of all he pours into the game. Last season’s somewhat shocking showing -- he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting despite beginning the season in Triple-A -- proved to be merely a building block from where he went to work for this season … even if some of the changes were made reluctantly.
“I am not a big fan of making changes, but I really like a couple of the ones I’ve made,” Donovan admitted candidly. “I’m always going to be tinkering and working to try and get better.”
If the early results are any indication of what’s to come this season, Donovan’s changes to his bat, batting stance and strict regimen of hitting five days a week since Dec. 1 have made him a better hitter. In just 10 Spring Training games, Donovan has already hit four home runs -- one fewer than he had in 126 games as a rookie. He went 1-for-3 with a run scored in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Astros.
With a winter wedding looming, Donovan wasted no time going to work on his swing soon after the Cardinals were eliminated by the Phillies in the NL Wild Card Series. The 26-year-old Donovan travelled to the Marucci Clubhouse sports facility in Baton Rouge, La., where technicians measured and monitored all aspects of his swing to try and make him a more efficient hitter.
Not content with his .379 slugging percentage and 21 doubles in 2022, Donovan hoped to find ways to make himself a hitter who could do more damage -- specifically from gap to gap -- without wrecking his swing. That stroke allowed him to notch an on-base percentage (.394), which was better than both Rookie of The Year winners (Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez at .345 and Atlanta’s Michael Harris at .339).
That testing ultimately proved that Donovan’s strong hand grip and powerful torso could handle swinging a heavier bat -- the same type of bat that featured a 'hockey puck' knob that teammate Paul Goldschmidt used en route to winning the NL MVP.
“I grip well, I jump well, and my horsepower test was good, so they showed me that I could swing a little heavier bat,” Donovan said. “Being a right-hand-dominant, left-handed hitter, I want to rip [the bat’s knob] through, and adding a little weight allows me to have that connection between my hands and body. Then, it’s simple physics -- if I can swing this bat faster and it’s heavier, then I can hit the ball harder.”
Those simple physics have worked wonders so far for Donovan, who ranked in MLB’s bottom 25th percentile in exit velocity in 2022. So far this spring, Donovan had a 105.5 mph smash off the Nationals that travelled 393 feet on Feb. 25. On Wednesday against the Yankees, Donovan pulled a pitch 416 feet for a three-run homer that travelled 416 feet. Donovan already has two 400-foot home runs after muscling just two such homers all last season.
“That’s the big thing -- I’m not really swinging harder; I’m just learning to use my body more efficiently,” said Donovan, who also adopted a more upright stance. “Nothing changes with my swing; it’s just that my body is loading better so that I can swing the bat faster.”
Cards manager Oliver Marmol raved most of last season about the plate discipline and patience of Donovan, and Nolan Arenado had this to say about the young hitter: “If I didn’t know better, I’d think Donnie was a 10-year veteran with how he works counts.” Marmol said it came as zero surprise when Donovan told him he was working throughout the offseason to better his swing.
“With the way we talk about [Goldschmidt’s] determination, he just has that disciplined nature of always wanting to improve,” Marmol said. “What [Donovan’s work ethic] is being compared to, that’s a good thing.”
Donovan sees no reason why he can’t continue to work deep into counts and pester pitchers just because he’s swinging a heavier bat at greater speeds. His swing is still under control, he said, but he hopes it is one that can do more damage.
Same swing, only different results, he said.
“I’m not trying to swing harder,” he stressed. “But I do want to move better, and I feel like that will control the rest.”