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Brock Holt and riding the hot hand

Does the hot hand still exist into October?

MLB: New York Mets at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of who actually makes the playoff roster, the Red Sox don’t have a whole lot of questions on the position player side of things. There is some debate over the last roster spot — seemingly between Christian Vazquez, Tzu-Wei Lin or carrying an extra pitcher — but for the most part the players who will be there in October is settled. How those players are utilized, however, is a different discussion. There are actually a bunch of spots on this roster that could go in a number of different directions, with catcher, first base, second base and third base all having multiple realistic options to serve as the starter. It’s a tough situation for Alex Cora to parse, and a lot of the discussion around those spots revolve around the idea of the hot hand. No one represents this discussion better than Brock Holt.

The Red Sox utility man, and the team’s glue man in the clubhouse, has emerged as much more than a chemistry piece. Holt is contributing in a major way on the field right now and has been one of the best hitters on the roster over the last couple of weeks. We are dealing in very small samples right now, but over his last 11 games, spanning back to September 11, the 30-year-old is hitting .444/.516/.852 in 31 plate appearances. Yes, that is a sample size that doesn’t tell us much, but that is the nature of the hot hand, no? Watching this team on a nightly basis, there are few hitters that are inspiring as much confidence as Holt at the moment, which is both a lesson in how human nature skews towards recency bias and also an indication of just how great Holt has been of late.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

This isn’t just a totally fluky stretch of play from Holt, either. He’s hitting the ball harder than he has all year and avoiding soft contact at a higher rate than any other point in 2018, too. Both of those numbers are according to Fangraphs’ batted ball data. Holt is also displaying more aggression than we’re used to from him, particularly on pitches in the zone, and he’s using an all-field approach. Does that mean this is entirely sustainable? No, Holt is not an MVP-caliber player. Does it mean that he’s better right now than his career track record would suggest? Well, maybe!

What makes the Holt situation even more enticing than, say, Rafael Devers and the hot corner, is that the former can factor into three of the four undecided starting spots. Third base is probably the least likely, to be fair. Holt can play there in a pinch, but his arm isn’t really suited for the position. This is a battle that comes down to Devers and Eduardo Núñez, though if they feel like they need to get Holt into the lineup — a fair belief given how he’s playing right now! — this is at least an option.

The other two positions are much more likely. Second base is Holt’s most natural position, and it is also home to Ian Kinsler. On the surface, it’s hard to see Kinsler losing out on a starting spot for the postseason. He’s definitely a superior defensive option to Holt, and that was the reason he was brought in at the trade deadline. Furthermore, he has the clout of a veteran with 161 plate appearances in his postseason career. That experience means something to a manager. On the other hand, Holt is red-hot while Kinsler is hitting just .246/.280/.305 since coming to Boston. There is a very real argument to be made that Holt deserves a starting spot over Kinsler, career history be damned.

Then, there’s first base, the position at which Holt would never profile at based purely on looks, but the position at which I’d argue he’s the best fit on this current roster. This would be a platoon spot, to be fair, as Steve Pearce has this slot locked down against left-handed pitching. Still, Mitch Moreland has hit just .177/.258/.305 in the second half and Cora has to start thinking about other options in his place. The team certainly loses a bit on defense if they did switch Moreland for Holt, and I am of the belief that a downgrade at first base is more costly than the numbers suggest. The question is whether or not the uptick at the plate counteracts the defensive loss. Based on the hot hand theory, I think the answer is an easy yes.

There’s also the matter of Holt’s success as a pinch hitter. This is another small-sample success story, but the utility man has been fantastic in this role. It’s only 15 chances, but he is 5-13 in those opportunities, drawing two walks and having all five of those hits going for extra bases. On the one hand, who cares about 15 plate appearances. On the other hand, every player would tell you pinch hitting is easier said than done, and if you have someone who can swing a game in a late-and-close situation, should you keep them on the bench for that chance? I’d say no pretty easily, but I’d guess there are those with more experience in the game than myself who’d disagree. (Not that experience alone makes them right, obviously, but they’re opinion shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.)

The real question for all of this is just how much the hot hand matters when you’re planning for October. There’s real debate over whether the hot hand really tells us anything in a regular season environment — the numbers say no, the players say yes — but the playoffs are an entirely different beast just because of rest. Not only are there many more days off during series, the Red Sox are going to have almost a full week off between the end of the regular season and the start of the ALDS. With four full days off between Sunday and Friday, does the hot hand really carry over? Even if Holt is hot through the end of the regular season, is working in the cage really going to be enough to keep that going after so much time off? Thinking about it logically, I would say no, but this isn’t really a logical discussion. Again, we’re dealing entirely in small sample and how a hitter feels at any given time.

This is one of those decisions that’s really hard to form a strong opinion on from the outside, but I’m going to do it anyway. If it were up to me, at this moment in time, I would lean towards a Holt/Pearce platoon at first base in October with Moreland serving as a left-handed hitter off the bench. What Cora decides to do will tell us a lot about how he feels about hot and cold streaks and how they survive a long break.