Is Brock Holt a more valuable asset than some thought?
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (April 23, 2018 – Source: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images North America)
Curtis Granderson had himself a game against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night, which saw him blast a walk-off homer off Craig Kimbrel in the 10th inning. In addition to the solo-shot that narrowed Boston’s division lead to three games, the Grandy Man recorded two other hits, including a two-RBI double off Rick Porcello. He accumulated three of the five hits Toronto mustered in the contest.
Despite taking the loss, the Sox outhit the Jays, accumulating nine hits on the night. Hanley Ramirez provided the team with three of those, which is hardly a surprise considering how well he has hit the baseball in 2018. Rafael Devers, Eduardo Nunez and Jackie Bradley Jr. also contributed a hit apiece to the cause, leaving us with three hits unaccounted for. The remaining three base knocks came off the lumber of Brock Holt, who went 3-4 on the night, including a slick opposite field double to left field.
In 50 plate appearances this season, the BrockStar has churned a very respectable .289 AVG/.360 OBP/.444 SLG clip. Furthermore, Boston’s utility man has created runs 21 percent above league-average, compiling a 121 wRC+ to go along with a 0.1 fWAR.
So, yes, we are dealing with an incredibly paltry sample, one which is hard to extract anything meaningful and predictive from. With that said, working with the data points that we do have, is there anything to suggest there is sustainability to this early-season production from the former All-Star?
To commence this exercise, we need to contextualize why we are encouraged by his offensive production. After all, if Mike Trout were to post a .444 slugging percentage with a 121 wRC+, we may be discouraged, opposed to encouraged. Sorry, if this is groundbreaking but Holt is not as good as Trout. No one is as good as Trout, not even one Mookie Betts.
Anyway, back to Brock Holt. Between 2016 and 2017, the left-handed batter constructed a .237 AVG/.316 OBP/.337 slash line in 488 plate appearances. In the same span, he ran a 75 wRC+, creating runs 25 percent less than league average, and was worth -0.4 fWAR. Simply put, there was nothing pretty or heartening about those two seasons for Holt.
Granted, last season he ran into some serious vertigo-related issues, which saw him miss significant playing time and could have conceivably hindered his production. While there may be a viable argument there, by all indications his 2016 season was vertigo-free and he still only managed to compile a .255 bating average, an 88 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR in 324 plate appearances. After pushing a 2+ fWAR in 2014 and 2015, Holt took a demonstrable step back in ’16.
Back before I even owned this domain , I typed words, which may have been rather harsh, about Holt in a piece titled “The Red Sox need a stronger bench.”
Starting with Holt, who admittedly was dealing with vertigo/concussion issues in ’17, we have a utility guy who posted a -0.9 fWAR last year to go along with a 51 wRC+ (100 is league average). In other words, he batted .200 with 0 home runs in 164 plate appearances. If you want to totally write this season off as a circumstantial fluke, then we can look back at his 2016 season where he posted a 0.5 fWAR in 324 plate appearances. The attachment Red Sox fans have with him is understandable. He has earned the perception of a gritty, selfless player, who wasn’t supposed to amount to much but became an All-Star in 2015. The fans adore him, yet, removing emotion from the equation, it is questionable if he is worth a spot on the club
To be candid, I was in the “keep Deven Marrero” camp before it was cool but, I mean, at this point it probably isn’t cool anymore. Whatever, I have never been cool in my life, anyway.
I am able to buy into the argument that Holt is not as bad of a player as he was 2017, however, 2016 concerns me more than anything else. He’s never been able to hit for much power, relying on running high BABIPs (.349 in ’14 and .350 in ’15) and walking at decent rates to provide league-average offensive value. This season he has run a nice .308 BABIP, a considerable upgrade over his ’16 (.294) and ’17 (.259) BABIPs.
For those unaware, BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play and, essentially, is a decent indicator if a player is receiving “batted ball luck.” It varies player-to-player (some players tend to post higher and others lower ones) and the American League average in 2018 is .293. Holt owns a career .323 BABIP, which is perhaps distorted by his really high-BABIP seasons of ’14 and ’15. Still, it is probably not at all erroneous to assert Holt’s current .308 BABIP is not due for regression. In other words, it does not seem as if he is getting lucky when he has put balls into the field of play.
That is encouraging. Another aspect of his 2018 play that excites me is his remarkable reduction in K% (strikeout percentage). Through the 14 games he has participated in this year, the 29-year-old has only punched out 10.0% of the time. Last season, he struck out 20.7% of the time and for his career he has done so 18.4% of the time.
Considering K% tends to stabilize at 60 plate appearances (10 shy of what Holt currently possesses), this gives me hope. Among the 250 players with at least 50 chances at the plate this year, my man is the owner of the 10th-lowest K% in baseball.
You should instinctively know what fewer strikeouts mean. It means less free outs and more at-bats that end in either a ball put in play, a ball hit out of the park (hey, he’s got one dinger) or a free trip to first base. All of those are superior results, barring a double play, to a strikeout.
Even though he’s striking out fewer times, he is swinging at balls more frequently than in any season of his career, outside of the magic year that was 2013. With a 41.4 Swing% this season, Holt has increased the percentage of pitches he has offered from 37.4% in 2017. How is this possible?
Well, it is because, like most Red Sox hitters, he is embracing the Alex Cora philosophy of swinging at better pitches. The percent of pitches he has swung at in the zone (Z-Swing%) this year is at 63.2% and the percent of pitches he has swung at out of the zone (O-Swing%) is at 19.8%. Between 2016-2017, Holt posted a Z-Swing% of 54.7% and an O-Swing% of 24.2%. That’s improvement right there for ya, folks.
You want hitters swinging at a higher percentage of strikes because those are better pitches to drive. Conversely, you want hitters swinging at a lower percentage of balls because those are not as good of pitches to drive. Holt has swung at more strikes and less balls. It is not a sure-fire way of being a more efficient performer, but it certainly does not hurt. The 2009 9th-round draft pick seems to be reaping benefits, like most Sox hitters, from this refined approach.
He is also avoiding strikeouts because he is making contact at an extraordinary rate. Among batters with at least 50 plate appearances in 2018, his 93.2 Contact% is the third-best in baseball, only trailing Michael Brantley and Chase Utley in that department. Between 2016-2017, Holt put up an 88.7 Contact%. You see the pattern, here.
His batted-ball profile remains roughly the same, with a slight uptick in his FB% (fly ball percentage) and LD% (line drive percentage) but nothing too drastic to comment on further. It’s way too early for such a minuscule change to have much meaning.
It is, however, interesting to look at his average exit velocities, courtesy of Baseball Savant, over the past four years. So, let’s do that very thing.
Holt’s average exit velocity for 2015-2018 seasons
- 2015: 85.8 mph
- 2016: 85.8 mph
- 2017: 83.3 mph
- 2018: 88.1 mph
I know you see what is happening, here. Though still a small sample size, Holt is hitting the ball harder, on an average basis, than in any season since this information was available. In fact, his .348 .wOBA in 2018 is actually worse than his .362 xwOBA. In non-stat language, with the way Holt is hitting the ball this year, his offensive numbers should actually be a little better.
Better than the 121 wRC+ he has produced so far.
If I had more time, I would probably look at spray charts or zone maps for Holt. Unfortunately, I have the most important slow-pitch intramural softball tournament of my life soon, so I’ll let you do some work on your own, I guess.
Initially a Brock Holt skeptic and Deven Marrero advocate, I am starting to come back around on the B-Star train. Do I think he will be the 2+ fWAR player he was in 2014 and 2015? Well, he most likely will not get ample at-bats to come close to that mark but, even still, I am not sure he can touch that without significant batted ball luck. Regardless, with a refined approach at the plate, I am now bullish on Brock Holt being a solid utility man.