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One Big Question: Is Brock Holt’s batted ball success really back?

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Brock Holt had the best year of his career in 2018, but how sustainable was it?

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Brock Holt.

The Question: Is Brock Holt’s batted ball skill back?

Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago that Brock Holt burst onto the scene out of nowhere as a legitimately useful super utility player. That was back in 2014, which was a pretty rough year to be a Red Sox fan. There weren’t a ton of things to be happy about in the post-2013 season, but Holt was as exciting as it gets in a losing season. He hit every cliche on the head and was pretty good to boot. Many saw him, a throw-in in the Mark Melancon/Joel Hanrahan trade, as a one-year fluke before Holt came out and had an almost identical year in 2015. Now, both of these seasons saw the utility man jump out of the gate to a hot start before slowing down considerably in the second half. However, at the end of both years his overall numbers showed a league-average bat who could play at least passable defense every besides catcher. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, regardless of how you split it up.

Then, unfortunately, the next two seasons happened. The Red Sox started to turn their fortunes around in 2016, winning the first of their three consecutive division titles, but Holt wasn’t a very big contributor. He seemingly fell back to Earth, and by Fangraphs’ measure he was barely above replacement level in 2016 before finishing below replacement level the following season. Some of it was regression, but more of it had to do with physical issues. Specifically, Holt was dealing with vertigo that stemmed from concussions, the latest of which he suffered in that 2016 season. You don’t hear a ton about head injuries in baseball, at least compared to some other sports, but they still happen. As we saw with Holt, they can be really hard to shake, too. The Red Sox glue-guy talked about his issues with Evan Drellich back in July, and it’s an eye-opening look at just how much his play on the field — and his life off of it — was affected for such a long time.

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It goes without saying that you can’t really blame Holt for his lack of production in 2016 and 2017 (particularly 2017). Not that you should ever get red-faced mad about any baseball player’s performance on the field, but Holt was dealing with a long-term injury and heading into 2018 there was a legitimate question of whether or not he’d ever be able to get over it. Well, the question was answered with a resounding yes. Holt not only looked like his old self in 2018. He looked better. At least offensively, the now-30-year-old put up the best season of his career, coming at the perfect time given the Red Sox’ relative issues at second base. He still wasn’t a full-time player, but Holt hit .277/.362/.411 for a 109 wRC+ (nine percent better than league-average; the first time he’s had a triple-digit wRC+). He also became the first player in baseball history to hit for a cycle in postseason history, which is just absurd.

There are a number of things that stand out here, and that Holt had a clear head for the first time in a couple years was certainly the biggest factor in his performance ticking back up. That being said, while every area of his game got a little better, the part that looked most like his old self was on balls in play. Holt had always had a perception of luck around him back in 2014 and 2015, as he posted batting averages on balls in play of .349 and .350 in those seasons. Those are Joey Votto and Mike Trout numbers, not Brock Holt numbers. It seemed nearly impossible that he’d be able to sustain that, even after doing it two years in a row. His BABIP then dropped below .300 in both 2016 and 2017, and our suspicions were confirmed. At least we though. Last year, the now-healthy Holt looked a lot more like his old self who burst onto the scene, finishing the year with a .337 BABIP.

The question is, did we see another year filled with good fortune for Holt? Or can we accept now that Holt is a well above-average BABIP hitter with 2016 and 2017 being the outliers. The fact that those two years have the injury excuse certainly play in their favor, but we should probably look at the batted ball data, too. There, things do look Holt and confirm the eye test where Holt looked similar to his old self. Most notable was his line drive rate (per Fangraphs), which sat at a career-high 24 percent. For context, that put him in the top quarter of the league in that category. Holt also combined the line drives with a career-high hard-hit rate, though even his career-high rate of 29 percent was in the back-half of the league. Oddly enough, he also had the highest infield fly ball rate of his career, which is usually an indicator of bad contact. Throw in a more pull-happy approach than usual, it is a little strange that he was able to post such a high BABIP.

MLB: World Series-Workouts David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

What plays into his favor is simply the kind of batted balls he hits, keeping the ball low to the ground. Line drives obviously lead to the highest BABIP, but fly balls lead to the lowest, particularly for hitters without much raw power like Holt. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball data, Holt had the 14th-lowest fly ball rate among the 278 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2018. I’m not sure Holt is a true-talent .337-BABIP hitter, but it’s not unreasonable to expect him to stabilize somewhere around .310-.320.

The good news for Holt is that, while the BABIP saw a big jump this year, he’s also shown improvement in other areas as well. After carrying below-average walk rates for most of his career, his walk rate has jumped to double digits in each of the last two years. He also showed career-best power in 2018, though that didn’t look super sustainable. Still, combine all of that, and even with a little big of a step back on balls in play you’re still looking at a league-average hitter. That’s combined with a player who can still play all over the field (though probably not as well as when he first came up) and is likely the most liked and important player in the clubhouse. Seems like a useful player to have on your roster.