CHICAGO — Since early March, when Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol first read the scouting report on utility infielder/outfielder Brendan Donovan and got a closer look at his plate patience, he’s said essentially the same thing about the rookie: Donovan is a “gamer,” a “grinder” and “a winning player.”
Donovan backed up that lofty praise on Saturday night with his strongest performance at the MLB level. Not only did the rookie register the second three-hit night of his career, but he also drove in four runs — two of them breaking a tie in the top of the 10th inning with an opposite-field double. Donovan’s big night helped the Cardinals defeat the Cubs, 7-4, and split a doubleheader at a rainy Wrigley Field.
“I was trying to get something up, stay off the ground and advance the runners,” said Donovan, who went 1-for-3 with a walk in the 6-1 Game 1 loss and 3-for-5 with the career-best four RBIs in the nightcap. “That [10th-inning at-bat] is right up there. It was a long day, and for us to end it on a positive, that’s great.”
Donovan, an Army brat who was born on a German military base and lived in various places in the U.S. before settling in Alabama, didn’t start the season with the Cardinals despite being one of the team’s most consistent players in Spring Training. He did get called up to the Major Leagues on April 25, scored a run on that first night and registered his first MLB RBI and home run soon after.
There’s this working in Donovan’s favor: He’s started games in right field (seven times), shortstop (six times), second base (five times), third base (four times), first base (three times) and left field (once). Earlier this season, he became the first player since 1900 to make his first four MLB starts at four different infield positions, per the Elias Sports Bureau.
When he makes the journey from the clubhouse to the dugout, Donovan carries a bag that is loaded with four kinds of gloves. That willingness to play any position and do anything to help the club win quickly endeared him to Marmol, who has had to constantly juggle the Cardinals’ lineups with outfielders Tyler O’Neill (right shoulder impingement) and Dylan Carlson (left hamstring strain) on the injured list for multiple weeks. The 25-year-old Donovan has softened the impact of those personnel losses with his dynamic versatility.
“I’ve said it before: He’s the type of player you win with,” Marmol raved recently.
As impressive as Donovan has been defensively, his most surprising contribution is what he has done at the plate for the Cardinals. Following a somewhat slow start, Donovan has evolved into the kind of disciplined hitter who works pitchers for extended at-bats, lays off unfavorable stuff out of the strike zone and punishes them when they are within reach. One statistic, in particular, illustrates Donovan’s discipline at the plate: Nationals superstar Juan Soto and Donovan are the only players in the NL with more walks than strikeouts (minimum 18 walks). Through his first 34 games, Donovan has 18 walks compared to 15 strikeouts.
“We have a scouting report on guys, and we know what they want to go to and what their putout pitches are, and I’m just trying to hunt pitches out over the middle,” Donovan said. “I’m trying to manage the zone and find ways to get on base. … I’m not a stat guy, but the [more walks than strikeouts] is me managing the zone. I don’t care what my numbers are; I care if I can help us win.”
Donovan ended Saturday’s doubleheader against the Cubs with a .315 batting average, a .440 on-base percentage and an .898 OPS. The .440 on-base percentage is first on the Cardinals, while his OPS ranks third and his batting average trails only that of Tommy Edman (.356), Paul Goldschmidt (.342) and fellow rookie Nolan Gorman (.318).
“Donny was super clutch today, and I love to see that because he plays super hard and he works so hard,” said fellow rookie Andre Pallante, who has been another of the Cardinals’ surprises this season. “I’m just happy seeing him have some success.”
Marmol, one of Donovan’s biggest supporters, thinks the rookie’s success is sustainable because he is remaining disciplined at the plate and not trying to do too much.
“His at-bats look really good, mainly because he’s taking what is given,” Marmol said. “He’s using the whole field and he’s grinding as far as wearing the pitcher down and taking the walk when it’s needed. Overall, he’s just given us some really good at-bats.”