All things considered, Brock Holt has had a really solid career even if he’s not going to be remembered by too many non-Red Sox fans as time goes by. He has played in an All-Star Game, participated in multiple postseason runs, played a minor role on a championship winner and has built a cult following among one of the largest fanbases in the game. His career obviously isn’t over yet, but I bring this up because, well, there was a time not too long ago when it seemed like his career might be over. Holt had a dreadful 2017 that was brought on by head injuries that led to extreme cases of vertigo. It was easy to see how that affected his performance on the field, but head injuries can linger for a long time and it was feasible that he’d never be able to properly come back from these issues, as sad as it was to acknowledge.
If you’ve been watching the Red Sox this year — and if you’re reading this as someone who has not been watching the Red Sox this year, thanks to you for that — you know that Holt has recovered and then some. Evan Drellich has a great read on the infielder’s recovery from his issues, both in the past and the continuing efforts. As Drellich writes, the issues aren’t completely behind him, but he’s improved to the point of looking a lot like his old self from three or four years ago when he made the All Star team. It’s been a big spark for the team, and it’s been a thrill to watch as a fan who didn’t want to see Holt’s career go down the path it seemed to be following.
Numbers-wise, he’s gotten off to better starts than he has now, but that doesn’t make what he’s doing any less impressive. Through his first 53 games and 180 plate appearances, Holt is hitting .297/.372/.405 for a 113 wRC+. In other words, he has been 13 percent better than the league-average hitter, and is having a similar season at the plate (albeit in much less playing time) as George Springer, Trea Turner and Andrew McCutchen.
It’s not just the simple production that’s impressive, though. It’s how he’s putting up the numbers. Holt has gone through wild flashes of power in the past, but generally speaking that is just not a part of his game. This certainly limits the ceiling for the 30-year-old, but he has learned to make up for this deficiency with other attributes.
The first of which is his plate discipline, which has always been good but has only improved. So far this season, he is walking 9.4 percent of the time. This is the second highest rate of his career, surprisingly behind last season. It’s the contact that is more impressive, however, as he is striking out just 16 percent of the time, about two percentage points lower than his previous career best. That is impressive on its own, but it’s even more impressive given the league-wide trend of ever-increasing strikeouts. To accomplish this, Holt has simply grown a better understanding of the strike zone. He has, like many others on the team, become more aggressive on strikes, though not really to the extent of many other Red Sox. The bigger difference has been his ability to lay off bad pitches. According to Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers, Holt’s swinging at fewer than 20 percent of pitches out of the zone, a three-percentage point drop from last season, which was a previous career low.
That approach has not only helped with his strikeout and walk numbers, either. Although the power has not been in his game this year, he has been able to have plenty of success on contact. As we mentioned before, power is never really going to be a major part of his package, and he’s seemingly leaning into that fact. This season, he has hit fewer flyballs than ever, instead hitting his highest rate of line drives and hard-hit balls since 2014. Line drives have fallen out of fashion as they don’t lead to the same power numbers as fly balls, but the major league average on liners in 2018, per Fangraphs, is still .681. It’s a more than viable strategy, particularly for players whose fly balls generally won’t land over the fence. That describes Holt, who has seen less than five percent of his fly balls over his career go for home runs (major-league average this season is 12.6 percent). Anyway, thanks to a better approach at the plate and perhaps a more conscious approach revolving around line drives, he has a .354 batting average on balls in play that looks very similar to his All Star heyday.
It’s just the on-field performance that is so apparently back for Holt, either. As he mentioned in the linked post from Drellich, the utility man is having fun playing baseball again. He wasn’t able to play too much in 2017, and when he was on the field it was so clearly a challenge for him that it wasn’t enjoyable for anyone involved. Now, he’s back to being himself, which means he’s back to constantly smiling and keeping the energy in the dugout loose and fun. He’s even added hugs into his arsenal this year. Not only is this enjoyable from afar, but it undoubtedly helps everyone in the clubhouse to have a constant tension-reliever around, particularly in a stressful playoff race such as the one in the AL East.
Of course, the elephant in the room with Holt is always going to be second half performance. In 2014 and 2015 he started off even better than he has this year, at least by wRC+, and then fell off dramatically after the All-Star Break. Whether it was because of fatigue, opponents having better scouting reports of a combination of the two, it happened two years in a row. There are a few key differences between those years and this one, though. First of all, both relied on even higher BABIPs, which are inherently less sustainable the higher they climb. On top of that, neither season featured the type of plate discipline Holt has shown in 2018. Then, there’s the fact that Holt is older and smarter about preserving himself through a season, combined with the fact that he hasn’t played as much this year as he did in those two seasons. None of that is a guarantee that he can avoid a second-half slide, but it’s reason for optimism.
None of this is to say that the Red Sox can rely on Holt the rest of the way or shouldn’t look for an upgrade if they don’t believe Dustin Pedroia can come back. I wrote about that just a few days ago and haven’t changed my mind already. That being said, Holt is going to play a role on this team whether he’s the everyday second baseman or not. He’s performing well on the field, is making an impact off of it and is just generally back to being the Brock Holt we all fell in love with a few years ago. It’s so much fun to watch.