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2018 in Review: Brock Holt

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The year that was for everyone’s favorite utility player

Green Bay Packers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Brock Holt.

The Season in a Sentence

Brock Holt’s 2018 will likely be most remembered for that one postseason game and his huge presence in the clubhouse, but it was also the best overall year we’ve ever seen from the utility man.

The Positives

That “season in a sentence” aside, we have to start any conversation about Holt with his presence in the clubhouse. This is something that is really hard to talk about from the outside, but it’s also an undeniable part of his value. It seems like every team has a surprise or two in terms of who runs the clubhouse, but Holt is and has never been a surprise. You can tell exactly by how he acts in the dugout and how players react to him that he is the kind of calming presence you need over a 162-game grind. You hear a lot every year about the importance of keeping things loose, and there’s nobody better at keeping a baseball team loose than Holt. That alone is reason enough to keep him around.

Of course, it’s also not the only reason because the Red Sox utility man reminded everyone that he’s pretty alright at the whole baseball thing, too. In his age-30 season, Holt had a legitimate career year. Over 109 games and 367 plate appearances, Holt hit .277/.362/.411, good for a 109 wRC+. In other words, he was nine percent better than the league-average hitter, and that wRC+ is ten points higher than his previous career high. He did that while still providing the same defensive versatility we’ve come to expect from him.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The most impressive part of his game was his plate discipline, which he’s always going to need if he’s going to be this good. Holt can hit the ball with authority here and there, but the power is not good enough to ever carry him to a strong season. For the second straight year, however, he walked at a double-digit rate, and for the first time he combined that with a strikeout rate below 20 percent. (To be fair, it was 19.9 percent, but that’s technically below!) Compared to some other players on the roster, Holt didn’t latch on to the new aggressive hitting style that permeated through the Red Sox clubhouse this year, but he was more aggressive than he had been the last few years. Most importantly, he was only more aggressive on good pitches. On pitches out of the zone, he swung less than ever, and to put it simply good things are going to happen if you swing more at good pitches and less at bad ones. Wild, I know.

That plate discipline didn’t just lead to good strikeout and walk rates, either. Remember when I said Holt’s power would never carry his game? Well, that’s still true, but he did make the best contact of his career, and some of that showed in his power numbers. His .134 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) is not going to jump off a page and is fairly significantly below the league-average, but it is also a career-high. Holt’s career ISO was actually below .100 before the year, but he looked like a new guy in 2018. Thanks in large part to his improved pitch recognition, he hit the ball harder than ever, was pulling the ball as much as he has since he first broke on to the scene, and posted the second highest line drive rate of his career. This also helped him get to a .334 batting average on balls in play. Generally, you’d like to see the increase in line drives go more towards fly balls to help get that power even higher, but someone like Holt probably doesn’t have the raw power to take advantage of those fly balls on a consistent basis. This was the ideal batted ball distribution for him.

Finally, there was that one game in the postseason. Brock Holt — Brock Holt! — had the first cycle in postseason history, and he did it in Yankee Stadium to boot. That was cool.

The Negatives

There’s really not a lot to say negatively about Holt’s season, and it really depends on how much you want to stretch it. As I mentioned above, the utility man to post a career-high ISO, but it was also below average. Depending on how you look at these things, you could still mark that as a negative if you were so inclined. I would disagree, but you could do it. You could also point to his baserunning, which was a negative for the second straight season by both Fangraphs’ and Baseball Prospectus’ baserunning metric. According to Fangraphs, only 14 players cost their team more runs on the bases than Holt. The 30-year-old also had a really rough stretch in the middle of the dog days, right around the time they acquired Ian Kinsler to play second base. In July he posted a 63 wRC+, and perhaps if he was playing better they don’t make that Kinsler trade. It’s tough to put that all on Holt, though — Eduardo Núñez didn’t help matters — and it’s tough to talk about negatives with a season this surprisingly solid.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Big Question

Can Brock Holt get back to his prime-level production?

Yes, emphatically. In fact, as mentioned, this was the best season of Holt’s career. It’s sort of easy to forget now, but there were times even as recently as this past summer where it was fair to wonder if Holt was ever going to be the same again. If you’ll recall, he spent most of last season dealing with some pretty serious head injuries. It’s impossible to know how those will heal, if at all, and Holt was clearly affected by them a year ago. He’s talked about it throughout the year and how much different things have been this year, and it was nice to get a reminder of just how good he can be even beyond the infectious personality.

The Year Ahead

There is every reason to expect Holt to fill a similar role in 2019 to the one he served in 2018 and the one he’s served basically his entire career. He can fill in and start if that’s needed, but more often than not he’s going to be the guy to come off the bench and help out all over the diamond, and he’s going to do it well. I would bet against him being quite as good as he was in 2018, but something close to a league-average bat with passable defense at every position should be the expectation. The interesting storyline to watch is that Holt is a free agent after this season. His free agent case is really going to be fascinating, and part of me sees him being the type of guy to sign a somewhat surprisingly cheap extension to guarantee him a couple extra years and make him a Boston lifer.