I keep telling myself that the Red Sox offense is going to slow down at some point soon, but they just keep scoring runs and they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. They are a machine right now, plain and simple. Of course, that doesn’t mean the lineup lacks weak spots. The biggest one, of course, comes behind the plate where they are playing two subpar bats. We’ve already covered that issue (or non-issue), though. There’s also the issue of left field, or Brock Holt in particular. Last year’s All-Star representative was obviously never the superstar that title could suggest, but the expectations for him were certainly higher than what he’s provided thus far.
Holt has been poor enough at the plate that Ben identified his issues at the plate as a reason to give Rusney Castillo his last chance as a major-league regular. I’m not sure I agree with that, to be honest. Although, to be fair, I’m not sure I disagree, either. I have to admit I have some inherent bias towards Holt as he’s been among my favorite players on the roster for the last few years, so I may subconsciously be willing to give him a longer leash than most. Still, it seems as if we are giving up on him as a starter too early after just a few bad weeks. I wasn’t really sure, though, so I wanted to take a deeper look at his issues and see if there are real signs pointing to him being this bad as a hitter.
First, the overall numbers. Holt is hitting just .239/.310/.354 with a 79 wRC+ through his first 130 plate appearances on the year. That’s bad! It is worth noting, however, that he was hitting .265/.350/.397 with a 104 wRC+ at the end of April. That’s kinda good! So, it’s not as if he’s been hitting so anemically for the entire 2016 campaign. It’s also worth noting that he is on the shelf with concussion issues and may have been dealing with them for a bit longer than we knew. Either way, the flip side of the pretty good April is a horrendous May (38 wRC+) that results in an overall disappointing line. This is where we dig a little deeper to get to the bottom of things.
I will admit that I was rather surprised when I looked into his peripheral numbers on the season. To start 2016, Holt has actually been better by these numbers. His walk rate is slightly up from last season, his strikeout rate is significantly lower and his Isolated Power is above .100 for the first time in his career, albeit in an obviously smaller sample size than other seasons. Obviously, we’re talking about a guy who has never been a world-beater, but he’s been at least adequate over the course of his career. Even in his tough May the peripheral numbers were roughly the same as his career rates. The fact that he’s looked the same or better in many important areas is a notable thing.
As may be obvious at this point, the real difference in Holt’s offensive success (or lack thereof) in 2016 comes down to a deflated batting average on balls in play. After keeping a BABIP at or around .350 in each of the last two years, it has fallen all the way down to .261 in 2016. During the atrocious month of May, it’s at .222. Holt has been particularly affected by balls that he pulls as he’s currently sitting with a .103 BABIP on hits to that side of the field compared to a .274 league average. He has been shifted a bit this year but, because everything is weird, he has a .304 BABIP against the shift, per Fangraphs.
To get to the bottom of his BABIP issues, I first took a look at his batted ball profile. Sure enough, there were no major changed. His line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are almost all close to identical to where they were last season. In fact, the month of May has seen more line drives and ground balls (per Fangraphs), which in theory should lead to more hits. Furthermore, he’s spreading the ball around the field at a more even rate than he ever has in his career, a talent that should make it harder to play defense and easier for the batter to get hits. That spread is thrown off a bit in the month of May, but the majority of his hits are going back up the middle.
It’s not all good news for Holt, though. The truth is, all signs are pointing to some weaker contact on the year. The exit velocity-related numbers are still a little sketchy, so take this for what it’s worth, but Fangraphs’ hard hit rate metric is down from the last few years for the former utility man. Brooks Baseball’s exit velocity ratings agree and have his down slightly against each type of pitch.
Looking at Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, the only big change supports the weaker contact hypothesis. Holt has seen a relatively large increase on pitches out of the zone, which would of course lead to a lower quality of contact.
In an ideal world, Holt is not your starting left fielder. He’s a valuable major-league player, but he’s not really a corner outfielder at the plate. On the other hand, most of the signs point towards him being nowhere near as bad as he’s been to this point in the year. The weaker contact isn’t great, but it doesn’t outweigh his gains in plate discipline and power, however slight they may be. He should get another chance to turn it around when he returns from the concussion disabled list. At that point, I’m confident he can be useful enough to hold down the left field position until the Red Sox can address the position with a trade if it comes down to it. With the way Boston’s lineup is hitting, that’s good enough.