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One Big Question: Can Brock Holt get back to his prime-level production?

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Brock Holt is coming off a really tough year. Can he recover?

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

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Brock Holt.

The Question: Can Brock Holt start making solid contact and get back to his 2014-2015 form?

As we’ve spent much of the early parts of spring training pondering the end of the Red Sox bench, Brock Holt has been right in the thick of the discussion. There are a few different permutations of how the end of Boston’s roster can work itself out, but the most common way to look at this situation is that it’s a battle for one spot between Holt and Deven Marrero. The latter holds a few advantages without even factoring in talent and skill set. Holt makes more money than Marrero, which could matter for a team right on the cusp of going over the threshold that would cost them ten spots in next summer’s draft. (I don’t think Holt’s money is a concern at all, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) Holt also has a minor-league option remaining while Marrero does not, obviously meaning it’s easier for him to be left off the roster and still preserve as much depth as possible. Perhaps most important in this discussion, though, is that Holt simply hasn’t been the same solid player he was in his first two full years with the Red Sox. After being a fun story and a legitimate contributor in 2014 and 2015, he’s taken a step back over the last two years including a really rough 2017. Now, the Red Sox have to wonder just how likely it is that he’ll be able to get back to that old level moving forward.

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

To start, let’s remind ourselves just how stark the drop off was for Holt in 2017 specifically but more broadly over the last two seasons. In both 2014 and 2015, the first two years in which he got something close to a full slate at the major-league level, he performed as a league-average hitter posting wRC+’s of 99 and 98, respectively, in those two seasons. Along with acceptable defense all around the diamond, that production was good enough to get him to be around a three-win player if given a full starter’s workload. His defense and offense both fell off marginally in 2016 and he finished the year with a wRC+ of 88, largely due to a particularly rough second half. Things really fell apart in an injury-riddled 2017, though, as Holt finished as a below replacement-level player with a 51 wRC+. Now, he and the Red Sox need to figure out what went wrong.

The most obvious answer to all of this is that his injuries brought his overall performance down by a significant margin, and I think that’s a totally fair answer. Holt, in case you forgot, was dealing with head injuries that led to a serious case of vertigo all year. It didn’t seem like anything too major at first, but he suffered multiple setbacks and it quickly became clear that this was more serious than our initial impression would suggest. I don’t think I’m breaking any news when I say that any head injury is going to have a massive effect on how anyone performs in their job, never mind a professional athlete. From this assumption that the injury was the underlying factor in his rough year two questions emerge. The first is how much of an effect the injury had. Were the struggles solely because of the head injuries, or was it combined with natural decline for someone who is now entering his age-30 season? Secondly, even if it was all about the injury, can we really be sure he’s fully recovered. Head injuries don’t tend to go away quickly without any long-term impact.

Obviously, we can ask those questions but there’s no real way we can know the answers to our inquiries. We’re not doctors, and even if some of you are you (presumably) don’t have the access required to have any idea what the answers can be. We can, however, look at some of the things that have caused Holt to watch his performance decline in recent years. To me, it all boils down to quality of contact. When Holt was playing well a few years ago, he showed an ability to square up the ball and hit line drives all over the place. This is the best strategy for him, because he likely doesn’t have the raw power to necessarily take advantage of the launch-angle-powered flyball revolution sweeping the sport. However, he’s watched his line drive rate as well as his hard-hit rate (per Fangraphs’ batted ball data) fall as the years have gone on. Moving over to his Brooks Baseball page, it’s become clear that the biggest issue has come with squaring up fastballs and other hard pitches.

The good news for Holt is that he looked as if he started to turn things around towards the end of last season. While he was really struggling at the start of the year as he was battling the injuries, he posted a 93 wRC+ in a small sample in September. Likely not coincidentally, he started to hit more line drives this month. Again, we can’t say with much confidence that he got over his injuries at that point in the year, and we can’t even put much stock in such a small sample of batted balls. That said, it’s at least more encouraging than it is discouraging.

At the end of the day, while I’ve said that I think I’d give the last bench spot to Marrero, I still see Holt as the favorite to get that gig. If he’s right and can be the guy he was a few years ago, that’s a big boost for the Red Sox. It’s tough to say whether or not he can be that guy again, though. Without being able to know how the injury is treating him on any given day, all we can do is look for signs of him being at his best. That means watching his quality of contact and how often he can square up the ball and hit it on a line. This coming year might be his last chance was the Red Sox after trending downwards in two straight seasons. Hopefully, he can prove that he’s still worth keeping around, because there haven’t been many players who have been more fun to root for in recent years than Brock Holt.