Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Brock Holt.
2019 in one sentence
Brock Holt had a second straight above-average season at the plate while once again bouncing around the diamond and filling his role as a key glue guy in the clubhouse.
Brock Holt’s performance at the plate was quite good in 2019, particularly compared to expectations, but it wasn’t really in the form of most strong offensive seasons in 2019. While the league was flexing its muscles (and juiced baseballs) with home run power, Holt was excelling in simply getting on base. He was able to get it going both by getting hits and drawing walks, too. On the hits front, Holt continued to show that he is a BABIP machine when he is healthy. In 2019, he hit the ball hard more often than any other season in his career (per FanGraphs) while keeping with his typical line drive-based, all-fields approach. That helped lead to a .365 batting average on balls in play. Although that number is not really sustainable long term, we’ve seen enough during his healthy seasons to to think he is a legitimate .330+ BABIP hitter. Since 2014, the only two seasons in which he didn’t meet that mark were 2016 and 2017, both of which were affected fairly significantly by head injuries. Thanks to that BABIP as well as a better-than-average 19 percent strikeout rate, he finished the year with a .297 batting average.
We know, of course, that batting average is not a stat with which to really judge hitters anymore, but it remains a big component of on-base percentage. As long as a guy with a ~.300 batting average is walking at some marginal rate, the OBP will certainly play. For Holt, he walks at more than a marginal rate. Although his walk rate did fall to its lowest level since 2016, the 9.5 percent rate was still a full percentage point higher than the league average. He did swing at a significantly higher rate of pitches out of the zone than the last few years, but it was still a lower rate than the league-average. Throw in above-average contact rates throughout the zone and you have a guy who will draw plenty of walks. All told, Holt finished the year with a career-high .369 OBP.
Beyond the on-base ability, you also had the hallmark of Holt’s career: His versatility. Now, at 31 years old he is not the athlete he once was, but the team is still confident enough to send him out all over the field. In 2019, he got at least two starts at every position except catcher and center field. At times in his career I think Holt’s versatility may have been a little overrated since he’s not a standout defensive player anywhere, but this year it was huge for Alex Cora. Given the struggles of the rotation and that leading to a need for an eight-man bullpen, most of this season was spent with a three-man bench. That is much more difficult to juggle if you don’t have a guy in Brock Holt who can play basically any position whenever you need it.
As with many things with Holt, the real value with him comes when you look at some of the smaller things. For example, he got better this season as the situation grew in importance. This is almost certainly small sample noise and not something to count on moving forward, but you can’t change what happened. What happened in 2019 was Holt putting up a 125 wRC+ in high-leverage spots, a 114 wRC+ in medium-leverage and an 87 wRC+ in low-leverage.
I mentioned that versatility is the hallmark of Holt’s career, but that is only on the field. We also saw the biggest reason why he has become a fan favorite, even more than being a relatively small an abnormally versatile player. He continues to be perhaps the most endearing player on this team. His presence in the clubhouse is impossible to quantify but also impossible to discount. Ask any player about it and you’ll get rave reviews. Even more important than that, Holt continued to make a massive impact in the community, most notably through his incredible connection with the Jimmy Fund.
The big issue for Holt this year, insofar as there was one, lies with his power. This has been the issue with his performance at the plate throughout his career, and even the juiced ball didn’t help matters. After posting a career-high .134 Isolated Power in 2018, he fell back to a .104 mark this past year. Obviously, this is not a major issue in terms of how it affected his expected performance. Holt simply isn’t a power hitter, and anything he adds in this department is an added bonus. That being said, the lack of power here clearly limits the ceiling, and as we’ve seen in his injury-hurt years if his BABIP falls to even an average level the offense suffers dearly.
Holt, to put it simply, just doesn’t have a batted ball profile tailored for hitting for power. That is likely be design, of course, and clearly it has worked for him. He hits a lot of line drives instead of fly balls, and while he hits the ball hard it’s really hard to hit line drives for home runs. Furthermore, he hits a high percentage of his balls up the middle and a low percentage to the pull side. That is not conducive to hitting dingers. There wasn’t really much hope for Holt hitting for power at any point of his career, but if there was any lingering hope for even modest improvement it went out the window when he didn’t do it in the Year of the Juiced Ball.
The other big issue for Holt this year was his health, which has been a problem for him in the past as well. The good news is that this started as a fluky injury and it never involved the concussion issues that plagued him in the past. Bizarrely, Holt missed time in the beginning of the season when his son (the legendary Griff) poked him in the eye while they were playing. He tried to play through it for a bit early on, and his performance suffered greatly. While he was rehabbing after recovering from the scratched cornea, Holt then hurt his shoulder and missed even more time. He recovered well from there, but he still was a non-factor for two months, and that was a big deal for a Red Sox team that didn’t have a ton of answers at second base.
The Big Question
As discussed above, yes. It was a legitimate question after 2018 considering at that point he had been coming off two down BABIP years. Now with two high BABIP years, I am confident that this is just who Holt is. Again, that doesn’t mean he’ll put up the same numbers, the type of production (BABIP and BB% based) can be expected.
I’m really fascinated by what comes next for Holt’s career. As a fan, I desperately want him back. He is incredibly easy to root for, both because his personality is so engaging but also because his style of play is one I prefer. I also think he can help this team in 2020 considering their question marks at second base. On the other hand, the team’s self-imposed payroll constraints could play against him. I’m also really interested to see if teams value Holt (and others like him) less with the roster expanding to 26 players in 2020. I lean towards them letting him walk this winter, but I really hope I’m wrong.