The small, square sign sits in Brendan Donovan’s locker, facing out so he sees it as he prepares for every game, home and away.
It’s a reminder of how he wants to play.
The where depends on the game. Could be infield. Could be outfield. Could be designated hitter. Could be up in manager Oli Marmol’s lineup or down ballot. Or it could be coming off the bench.
It shouldn’t change.
The sign reads: THE ENEMY THANKS YOU FOR NOT GIVING 100 PERCENT TODAY.
The framed phrase often used in military circles was given to Donovan by Brian Alazzawi, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who now works as the Cardinals’ mental skills and wellbeing coordinator. It resonated with Donovan because of his past and his present. Donovan was born in Germany while his father was there for his service in the Army. A baseball interpretation of the saying is not hard to find.
“It’s just something I look at every day,” Donovan said. “Whether I don’t feel good or feel great, it doesn’t matter. I can go out there and give everything I have. If I can out-compete someone, I have a better chance. I take it on the road. I try to keep it up in my locker. Make it visible.”
Visible is a good way to describe what Donovan has made himself during a sensational rookie season that dates back to the spring training he took by storm.
Any doubts about the 25-year-old southpaw swinger becoming a first-year contributor who faded down the stretch of his initial major league test were answered with an August that, entering this series in Cincinnati, beat Paul Goldschmidt in average (.385) and bested Nolan Arenado in on-base percentage (.448) on its way to becoming Donovan’s best month yet in terms of OPS (.890) in the majors. He’s now fifth among qualifying MLB rookies in season-long OPS (.783)
The home-run power is not there — Donovan has just two on the season — but nearly everything else is.
Defensively, Donovan has proven the ability to shapeshift between six different positions — third base, right field, left field, second base, first base and shortstop — while providing solid play at each place.
Donovan and second-year outfielder Lars Nootbaar have come together lately to solve the Cardinals’ riddle of what to do at the first two spots in the lineup ahead of Goldschmidt and Arenado when facing right-handed pitching.
Despite an average exit velocity in the 12th percentile and a launch angle that averages below 7 degrees, Donovan has become a nightmare for opposing pitchers. He’s probably not going to leave the yard against them. But he’s also not going to leave the batter’s box. He gives nothing up and takes advantage when pitchers bend to his will.
“If you can make him (the pitcher) lay off the pitch that he wants you to hit, you can have a lot of success,” Donovan said. “Try to get him over the middle. Try to get a good swing off. Good things can happen. If it doesn’t, make him throw a couple extra pitches, and he has to face the guy behind you. That’s how you make guys work.”
Donovan’s strikeout percentage (16%) is in the 80th percentile. His walk rate (12.2%) is in the 90th. He’s averaging 4.19 pitches per plate appearance. Juan Soto averages 4.20 pitches per plate appearances. Goldschmidt averages 4.15. Arenado? 3.77.
“He acts like a veteran player around here, in the most positive way I could say it,” Arenado said. “The way he plays the game, it’s like he’s been here a long time. He makes pitchers work. I know when I was that age, I was just trying to swing to get hits. He’s having quality at-bats. He knows he needs to work the count. He’s not afraid to get to two strikes. He’s just a professional hitter. To do that at that young of an age, he’s only going to get better. He’s been crucial for us.”
A great example came in the Saturday night swing game of what became a series win against the defending champion Braves, when Donovan worked the count full against Braves three-time All-Star closer Kenley Jansen before slashing a sinker to center for a double. He scrambled to third on a wild pitch. He scored the game-tying run on Corey Dickerson’s infield single. Donovan’s two-strike average is .237, trailing only Goldschmidt (.263) and Arenado (.239) among Cardinals.
“Just trying to find a way on base any way I could,” said Donovan, who had never faced Jansen before.
Every little thing Donovan does has added up in a big way entering the most important stretch of the season.
His 11-game hit streak tied for the second-longest active one in the majors at the moment.
He’s quietly moved into fourth place among Cardinals in wins above replacement (3.0).
He’s top three on the team in average (.299, third), on-base percentage (.404, second) and adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage, where his OPS+ of 130 is 30% higher than league average.
He’s top five in hits (85, fifth), doubles (17, fifth) and walks (42, third).
He’s also been hit a team-high 10 times and never seems to mind.
He will get on base however he can. He can play any position. He is getting better in crunch time, and it’s been clear watching him this season that the former seventh-round draft pick is not going anywhere but up.
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