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What's with Brock Holt's second-half struggles?

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For the second straight year, Brock Holt has torn it up in the first half, only to fall on his face in the second. What's going on?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In this age of free agency and constant roster changeover, it’s hard to have a consistent favorite player. You become attached to someone, and in an instant they are donning a different uniform. Still, it’s natural to gravitate more towards some players than others, and for me that player is Brock Holt. It’s really nothing to do with his talent, though, that is something that he has plenty of. It’s not even about his personality, though, again, he seems like a genuinely good dude.

What’s draws me so much towards Holt is that, objectively speaking, he’s a fascinating player.  Obviously, the versatility is part of that, as no one else can really do what he can on the diamond. But even beyond that, he’s simply a divisive player, and those guys are always more interesting. Some believe he should be a starter. Some believe he’s a utility guy who should play a little more than your typical bench player. Some believe he’s simply not that good and the Red Sox should cash in on his success as soon as possible.

What makes this even more fascinating is that there are valid arguments for each of these stances, which is sort of bizarre for a player with over 1,100 plate appearances under his belt. The reason for this is distinct splits in each of his two full seasons in the first and second halves. Having big first/second half splits in one season isn’t too rare, but having such similar issues for two years in a row can lead to a wide array of opinions. So, with all of that being said, it’s probably worth it to see if there are any similarities between the two seasons, and if they can tell us anything about Holt as a player.

If the only knowledge you had about the 27-year-old was his yearly stat lines, you’d come to the simple conclusion that he’s a league-average player. In 492 plate appearances last season, he hit .281/.331/.381 for a 98 wRC+. Through 469 plate appearances this year, he’s hitting .282/.348/.382 for a 99 wRC+. They were done slightly differently, but both seasons ended with Holt hitting at essentially a league-average rate. Of course, at any given time, he's been anything but average. Let this table be the visual guide to his absurd half-season splits.

Half AVG OBP SLG wRC+
1st Half 2014 .327 .371 .463 132
2nd Half 2014 .219 .278 .271 52
1st Half 2015 .292 .379 .412 118
2nd Half 2015 .272 .307 .345 73

That’s an absolutely nutty trend for Holt. The split was certainly worse last season, but this season may somehow be more noticeable considering his first half led to an All-Star selection. So, what’s the reason for these numbers? Are they predictable, or is this just a weird coincidence?

The first thing you notice if you dig a little deeper into the splits is that he suffered from much worse peripherals in both second halves compared to their respective first halves, but the peripherals suffered in different ways. In 2014, Holt struck out more and more as the season went on. This, combined with a massive drop in batting average on balls in play, resulted in a huge AVG drop off. Meanwhile, he’s actually striking out significantly less in the second half this season, but he’s also drawing far fewer walks. After walking in 11 percent of his plate appearances before the All-Star break, he’s walked just five percent of the time since then. There has certainly been a change in approach that’s hurt his cause in both second halves, but it hasn’t been consistent year-to-year.

What both of Holt’s second halves do have in common, however, is a drop in power and BABIP. This leads to a natural conclusion that he’s simply making weaker contact in the second halves. One way to visualize this is by looking at his spray charts. The following gifs swap between his first half and second half, with the first representing his 2014 splits and the second representing 2015.

Brooksbaseball.net

As you can see, in both second halves Holt stopped pulling the ball with authority, instead turning into more of a slap hitter. With some BABIP luck, this approach can work, but it’s not something that’s very sustainable. Holt is at his best when he’s hitting doubles into right field, not trying to push grounders past the shortstop. This kind of contact is what leads to low BABIPs and ISOs.

The final thing I looked for was whether or not Holt was particularly struggling against fastballs in both second halves. If so, this could be a solid indicator of fatigue, suggesting he may not be able to handle a full-season everyday role. Looking first at 2014, he saw an uptick on whiffs against fastballs, as well as ground balls and pop ups. This season, while he’s not seeing the same rising whiff rate, he is hitting more ground balls, and has seen a massive drop off in ISO and BABIP against the pitch.

Holt’s tendency to fall apart after the All-Star break has some similarities, but there’s not really enough there to be convinced it’s a long-term concern. With that being said, the transformation into a slap hitter on top of struggles against fastballs could mean a loss in bat speed as the season goes on. The best way to avoid this happening again would be fewer plate appearances, but of course that’s easier said than done for a player who is the backup at every position. Instead, the best course of action is likely to wait it out and hope it’s a coincidence, and that Holt is simply a league-average hitter who can play every position on the diamond. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.