Brendan Donovan succeeding with Cardinals by doing what he has always done, out-working and playing harder than everybody else

By Rob Rains

As he was evaluating players before the 2018 amateur draft, Cardinals scout Clint Brown approached South Alabama coach Mark Calvi one day with a question.

The question concerned a player on Calvi’s team, Brendan Donovan. Brown wanted to know if Calvi thought Donovan was a future major-leaguer.

Calvi responded, “Brownie, he will play in the big leagues, and he will make others along the way better too.”

It has turned out to be a pretty accurate scouting report.

“I remember that conversation,” Calvi said this week. “It’s not unbelievable, not with this kid. I know this kid. I’ve seen how hard he works.

“He was the kind of guy that I would have to pull in during batting practice and say, ‘Listen, I don’t need you diving for balls anymore in the outfield. I know you can do it. I don’t need you getting hurt. I don’t need you running into the wall. I need you healthy,’” Calvi said.

“He’s a dirtbag, in the most sincere sense of the word.”

Since Donovan was promoted from Triple A on April 25, he has played his way into becoming a regular in the Cardinals’ lineup, even if he doesn’t have a regular position. He has started games at six defensive positions, plus as a designated hitter, and has quickly developed a fan following because of his aggressive style of play, his ability to grind out at-bats and how he has become a key contributor in the Cardinals rise to first place in the NL Central.

It’s what Calvi saw for three years. It’s what Brown saw before the Cardinals selected Donovan in the seventh round of the draft. It’s what those who spent time with him in the minors saw as well.

It’s the reason that no matter where he played, Donovan always has had the dirtiest uniform on the team.

Simply, Donovan said, he is doing what he has always done. That’s just the way he plays.

“This is my game,” Donovan said. “This is what I did in the minor leagues, this is what I do here. … I’ve always said that in this game the only things I can control are my effort and my mentality. I take a lot of pride in that. I try to play harder than everyone. I just try to out-compete and out-focus … for me, that’s my edge.”

Relying on that edge has helped Donovan find success in his first two months in the majors, helping him earn an instant reputation of being someone who will put together a tough at-bat, battling on every pitch.

The numbers, as the saying goes in baseball, don’t lie.

The 25-year-old Donovan is leading all NL rookies in batting average, hits, doubles, on-base percentage and OPS. With 24 hits in 15 games so far this month, Donovan has more hits than any player in the National League.

That was the type of player Brown and other Cardinals scouts thought Donovan could be when they watched him in college.

“He grew on me every time I saw him,” Brown said. “Outside of liking his physical tools, I thought he had instincts and desire for the game. Throughout the process it became visible, and those who knew him believed in him as well harped on his aptitude for growth.”

Donovan’s rise to the majors has come quickly. A little more than a year ago, he was still playing in Class A in Peoria, in part because the minor-league season was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

He moved up to Double A Springfield on June 8, 2021 and found himself on the way to Triple A Memphis a couple of months later. His year ended in the Arizona Fall League, and after just three weeks at Memphis in April, he was driving up Interstate 55 to St. Louis.

Donovan knows that everything has happened because of the lessons he has learned along the way.

“I wasn’t always the most talented player, so I had to find other areas of my game to help me try to reach the next level,” Donovan said. “I try to play winning baseball. At the end of the day it’s all about, ‘Did we win?’ If we did, great. If I didn’t have a good day, what did I do to help contribute?

“Did I do something small? Did I make a play on defense? Did I have a tough at-bat that tired the pitcher out when he got to the next guy? Did I draw a walk? All those things matter in winning baseball.

“I’m not concerned about my numbers; just wins and losses. It’s the little things that win baseball games. You see the big moments, but the big moments happen when the little things are done right.

“I take pride in grinding out tough at-bats. I always want to be a tough out. ‘Don’t give in. Keep competing. Keep fighting.’ That goes back to my edge.”

“It’s about out-working people”

Donovan can trace his success with the Cardinals back to the days when he played baseball growing up in Alabama, to his time at South Alabama and to the years he spent in the minors.

His dad, James, was in the Army, so often times it was his mom, Lisa, who worked with Donovan as he was growing up.

“When my dad was stationed overseas, my mom got us everywhere we needed to be,” Donovan said. “She taught me to hit in T ball, hit me ground balls, all that stuff. My younger brother, Kevin, pitched in college and in the off-season he throws BP until his arm is about to fall off.”

Donovan now gets feedback from his dad, and usually, Donovan finds out that what he saw was correct.

“He watches every game and he studies film,” Donovan said. “He’s very educated about baseball, sometimes too educated. When it’s coming from Dad I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m not doing that.’ And we pull up the video and I’m absolutely doing that. It’s great. We have a very close family, and without those people I wouldn’t be here.

“It was my dad who instilled my attitude of what kind of competitor did I want to be. In college we had a lineup full of competitors. It’s important over the course of a season to have that mentality to not take days off or innings off or even at-bats off. That’s how you can win over a long season.”

Calvi pushed Donovan, sometimes hard, because of what he saw in Donovan and what he thought was possible for him in the game.

“It’s about out-working people,” Calvi said. “The best players are self-made players. Donnie was one of them. He just got in a group that worked like crazy, and he was probably the leader.

“He’s the kind of guy who would almost hit too much. They were out on the field hitting on Friday and Saturday nights in the fall. That’s the difference between Brendan Donovan and other players who are either working a desk job or playing in the minors right now.”

Donovan said the peer pressure helps make him accountable, then and now.

“You want to be surrounded by people who have the same goals, the same mission, as you,” Donovan said. “That’s the way you push each other. That’s how you have a winning culture. That’s what we have here.”

There were a couple of moments during Donovan’s time in college that Calvi believes were critical in his development. The first came in the fall of 2015, when Donovan was in his first semester on campus.

“He had a couple of bad rounds of BP and he was ready to tear the cage down,” Calvi said. “I called him down and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to sit you today. It was an intrasquad game. He said, ‘Yes sir.’ I asked him if he knew why, and he said no. I said, ‘It’s because if you can’t handle a bad round, this game is going to eat you alive. Go sit down and learn how to handle it.’

“He said, ‘Yes sir’ and jogged off. There was another round of BP and I could see him sitting on the bench, thinking about what was going on. He came out to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m better now.’ He was like a little kid; ‘Let me play, I don’t want to sit. I’ll handle it better, I promise.’ I said, ‘You’ve got it, you’re back in there’ and I never had another problem.

“In that moment it wasn’t like I was getting him ready for the big leagues, but it was more life stuff. Things are going to be thrown at you that stink, but you’ve got to deal with it. You’ve got to handle it right then and there. Nobody else is going to handle it for you. I think in that moment he learned this was big boy stuff. ‘I get what he did and I’m going to show him I can handle it.’”

The second moment Calvi remembers came a year later, when Donovan was a sophomore. The Jaguars were playing Columbia University in in a tournament at Mississippi State.

“Donnie was struggling a little bit and was 0-of-2 with a couple of punchouts,” Calvi said. “He got down 0-2 and I called time and walked out there. He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Let me tell you what I am doing here. I’m saving you from another strikeout. Get your head out of your rear. You’ve lost your approach. You’d swing at the resin bag if the kid threw it up here. Get a pitch you can handle.’

“He just looked at me like, ‘I can’t believe you are standing there right now.’ He whacked the next pitch off the scoreboard for a three-run homer and we won the game. That’s who he is. He has another gear.

“We all have the ability to get out of whack but the great ones have the ability to get back on track quickly. They don’t need a day, a week, a month. They can do it right in that moment, and he did it.”

“A tough out”

It was during Donovan’s three years playing for Calvi that he developed the same hitting approach and philosophy he is using now, with great success, with the Cardinals.

It’s the reason he isn’t afraid to take pitches, working the count. Going into Friday night’s game in Boston, he has walked 21 times and struck out only 20 times, a highly unusual ratio for a rookie.

He has worked the count to 3-2 36 times in his 154 plate appearances, getting nine hits in 21 at-bats while drawing 14 walks and also getting hit by a pitch. He has struck out only seven times in those at-bats.

With two strikes, Donovan has gone 20-of-70; almost half of his 44 hits in 129 at-bats.

“My job is to get on base for the guys behind me,” Donovan said. “I just try to go on the right pitch. I just try to focus on that pitch. The arms are so good these days that strikeouts are going to happen. Walking is a big part of my game. I need to get on base, and I take pride in grinding out at-bats and always being a tough out.”

During his three years playing for Calvi, Donovan drew 110 walks, and struck out only 88 times.

“Donnie is as mentally tough as they come,” Calvi said. “Our hitting philosophy is that we try to lay off pitches that we hit .150 against. We are looking for pitches we can drive and looking for the 10 inches over the middle of the plate. We lay off pitches we can’t hit hard. I drill it in their heads.

“I would get on them in batting practice if they swung at a pitch that would have gotten them out in a game. The stuff is so nasty these days you can’t cover 17 inches. You’ve got to shrink the zone and you’ve got to have an area that you can dominate. That was drilled into Donnie’s head. It’s worked for him.”

Tyger Pederson, the hitting coach at Springfield, saw exactly that last summer and Turner Ward, one of the major-league hitting coaches, has seen it the last two months.

“Brendan has always prided himself on going up there and competing, no matter the situation,” Pederson said. “He is very confident as a hitter and he doesn’t back down from any challenge, which is the strong mindset that helps him tremendously.

“The biggest thing that stood out to me was just the daily preparation and the daily work and how committed he was to his craft. Every day for him it was, ‘What am I doing to get better? How can I improve my offense, defense, baserunning?’ He was definitely a student of the game. He was always focused on trying to get 1 percent better each day … ‘How do I get a little better?’  It’s no surprise he’s doing what he is doing.

“He plays hard every night. He grinds. He competes, and he’s consistent. That’s the biggest thing you see from him. You know as a manager or coach what you are going to get when you write his name in the lineup. You know who is going to show up that day. The willingness to win is there, night in and night out. That’s everything you can ask for as a coach.”

Ward has seen exactly what Calvi saw, exactly what Pederson saw, exactly what Brown saw that led the Cardinals to draft Donovan.

Donovan got looks from a lot of scouts because South Alabama had another player, outfielder Travis Swaggerty, who was on every team’s radar as a highly ranked prospect. He became the 10th overall pick in the 2018 draft. A total of 203 players were then drafted before the Cardinals selected Donovan. Only 41 players out of all those picks have spent even one day on a major-league roster.

Donovan beat Swaggerty to the majors by 41 days. The two were hoping to have a reunion this week in St. Louis, but Swaggerty was optioned back to Triple A the day before the Pirates got to town.

“The common thread I heard from everybody is that this guy is a gamer, he plays the game with passion,” said Ward, also a South Alabama alum. “He’s very intentional about what he wants to do. He’s not afraid to go up there and see some pitches and get a good look at the guy, but he’s also not afraid to jump on the first pitch if the time is right.”

Everybody associated with the Cardinals also now understands why Calvi made that comment to Brown on that spring day four years ago.

“He does make others better,” Pederson said.” He brings others along for the ride and shows them, ‘Hey this is how things should be done.’ He is the kid who makes his teammates better. He’s the kind of kid you want to have on any baseball team because he does rub off on others and is a positive light in the clubhouse.”

Nolan Gorman, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in that same 2018 draft, has played with Donovan since 2019, when they were together in Peoria.

“He keeps his head down and works extremely hard to be the best player he can be,” Gorman said. “That’s something I kind of like to emulate. I look up to him for that, how hard he works and his ability to stay on an even keel and focus on the job at hand.

“He’s been the same guy at every level. He’s a really good baseball player.”

One of Donovan’s current teammates who doesn’t try to hide how impressed he has been by what Donovan has done is Paul Goldschmidt.

“The results are great, but to see the work that goes into it to get them is what stands out,” Goldschmidt said. “There is a certain way he goes about his business, and that’s usually the way guys do it who have sustained success.

“It’s hard to make big changes in the big leagues. When guys get called up, if they have a hole in their game, it’s going to get exposed. He’s always asking questions. He listens, and he’s trying to find a way to get better.”

Donovan, like all rookies, has experienced a lot of firsts since making his major-league debut. Each day, he says, can bring another “aha” moment.

“You look around and see 45,000 people in the stands,” Donovan said. “You watch Tommy Edman hit a walkoff homer. Every day has its own little aha moment. If you are enjoying what you are doing, I think you can find something pretty cool to smile about every day.”

Donovan has certainly been smiling a lot lately.

So too has Brown, now the Cardinals southeast regional crosschecker.

“When he was getting called up, Brendan sent me a text,” Brown said. “’Headed to St. Louis. They told me after the game. Just wanted you to hear it from me.’ It was totally unnecessary; not only to tell me, but to do it while en route was pretty cool. I don’t think he will know how much that meant to me.”

Donovan sent a similar text to Calvi. Calvi immediately wrote back, even though it was close to midnight.

“I told him congratulations, hard work wins,” Calvi said. “Don’t change. They like who you are. Don’t be anything other than yourself.”

Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

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