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One Big Question: Was Brock Holt’s 2016 the real Brock Holt?

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Brock Holt saw a big decline in BABIP in 2016? Was it a fluke, or a glimpse of who he really is.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Brock Holt.

The Question: Was Brock Holt’s drop in BABIP last season a fluke?

Brock Holt has quickly become something of a cult hero on the Boston sports scene. Between his unintimidating size, the glorious hair, his unmatched versatility, and the out-of-nowhereness of his career, everybody loves Brock Holt. I love Brock Holt. You love Brock Holt. How can you not? Do not trust those that do not love Brock Holt. Despite the vast amount of love, the reality is that he’s merely an average player in just about every facet of the game. Of course, his versatility gives him a little more value than your typical average baseball player, but he’s average nonetheless.

That is, he was average in his first two full seasons with the Red Sox. Last year, on the offensive side of things, he took a bit of a tumble and suddenly became decidedly below-average with the bat. After posting wRC+’s of 97 and 98 to start his Red Sox career, he put up a mark of just 86 in 2016. Oddly enough, most of his game stayed the same. The versatility was still there, of course. He was still a solid base runner. He still struck out at a better-than-average rate and walked at a good-not-great rate. There was actually a bit of an uptick in power, but it still wasn’t a focal part of his game. No, where Holt faltered last season was in turning balls in play into hits.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This, more than anything else, has been the key to Holt’s success in Boston to this point. In 2014 and 2015 he put up batting averages on balls in play of .349 and .350, respectively. Those are high numbers, and likely sort of fluky, but doing it for two years adds some validity to it. No one would’ve been shocked if he came close to that mark again last season, even if he didn’t make it all the way back to .350. Instead. Holt finished 2016 with a .294 BABIP. This is reasonable number for most players, but it took away the biggest part of the former All-Star’s offensive game. Is that what we can expect from him going forward, or was it just a blip on the radar?

First, the hopeful part of things. Looking at things more broadly, Holt just plays like a guy who should be able to maintain a high BABIP. He hits a ton of line drives, and just generally keeps the ball low off the ground. That, combined with his speed and general athleticism is conducive to hitting a whole bunch of singles.

Along those same lines, his batted ball profile stayed basically the same as his peak year in 2015. According to both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, he hit line drives at basically an identical rate last year compared to the year before. Furthermore, his ground ball and fly ball rates only changed by a percentage point or so. Just looking at that, one would expect this to be a fluke and for Holt to go back to being that single-happy, league-average hitter we’ve come to know and love.

Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. There are a few more data points that suggest the opposite might be true. For one thing, he wasn’t able to convert nearly as many of his ground balls into infield hits. This is a tiny part of his batted ball profile, but as he enters his age-29 season we could see him on the decline in terms of speed and athleticism. This is speculation, but it’s worth keeping in mind, at least.

On top of that, there are things like exit velocity and hard hit rate. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of these numbers, but they are at least a data point to add to the whole picture. In this case, Holt saw a mild drop in hard hit rate from 2015 and a more significant rise in soft-hit rate. It goes without saying that this is not an ideal combination.

Looking a little bit deeper into the issue, it becomes even more clear where the problem was for Holt. He simply could not square up offspeed pitches as consistently last season. We only have exit velocity data for the last two years, but according to Brooks Baseball his average exit velocity dropped on offspeed pitches while staying mostly constant against hard pitches and breaking balls. It’s not a great sign, since it was the hardest pitch for him to square up as it was.

Whether or not you believe in the exit velocity data, pitchers clearly saw something with Holt and offspeed pitches. Again, according to Brooks, he saw a big increase in how often pitchers used their offspeed stuff against him. In particular, both left-handed and right-handed opponents became much more comfortable using the pitches when Holt was ahead in the count, which is when he should be able to make the most hard contact.

Holt’s production will never match the adoration he receives from the Boston fanbase. Even so, he went from a highly useful player in 2014 and 2015 to merely an okay bench piece in 2016. If he wants to get back to who he was in his first two full seasons with the Red Sox, he’ll need to get his BABIP skills back. He’s got part of that equation down by hitting line drives and ground balls as often as possible. Now, he’s just got to make an adjustment to either lay off or square up offspeed pitches. Oh, and growing that hair back out probably wouldn’t hurt, either.