During a year in which they own the right to call themselves champions until someone dethrones them in October, it’s safe to say things aren’t exactly going the way the Boston Red Sox anticipated. At this point last year, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League at 49-34 and were on their way to winning the eighth World Series title in franchise history. This year, they’re 38-44 and currently own just a 17% chance to make the postseason at all, according to the very smart FanGraphs Playoff Odds.
The starting rotation, outside of Jon Lester and John Lackey, has been a disaster. Shane Victorino has barely played due to back and hamstring injuries. Dustin Pedroia has been reduced to a league average hitter as his complete lack of power starts to look more and more real. The A.J. Pierzynski signing hasn’t worked out like it did for the Rangers last year and Pierzynski’s time in the MLB appears to be coming to a close. It took Daniel Nava a month to go from starting major league outfielder to starting minor league outfielder. Xander Bogaerts hasn’t lit the world on fire like some hoped and Jackie Bradley Jr. has done nothing to prove that he can hit major league pitching, at all. Even David Ortiz, despite his gaudy home run total, hasn’t been totally himself at the plate.
When a season is going like this, one must try to find a bright spot, somewhere, lest one risk being a total pessimistic bummer. Even on the worst of teams, you can usually point to at least one guy that’s been exciting, surprising or shown some promise one way or another.
Red Sox optioned INF Brock Holt to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Holt never had much of a shot of landing an Opening Day roster spot and he did not hit overly well in Grapefruit League play. He’ll continue serving as organizational infield depth this season for the Red Sox.
Not to say that Rotoworld is an inside source on the workings and thought processes of an MLB front office, but this provides a general sense of how Brock Holt was viewed entering this season. The words “organizational depth” usually don’t paint too pretty a picture with regards to a baseball player’s future in the major leagues.
Yet here we are, nearly in July, and Brock Holt has arguably been the best player for the MLB’s reigning World Series champions.
On April 6, the Red Sox called Holt up from Triple-A Pawtucket to fill in at third base when regular starter Will Middlebrooks hit the disabled list with a calf injury. Keep in mind, Holt has played almost exclusively shortstop and second base since becoming a professional baseball player in 2011. He had never even played third base until late last year.
On June 1, Holt received his first appearance, at any level, at first base, after regular starter Mike Napoli was sent to the disabled list with a finger injury. Holt played seven games at first base while Napoli was gone.
A week later, on June 8, the continued absence of Shane Victorino and an absolute lack of production from literally every other Red Sox outfielder forced Holt to the outfield for the first time in his professional career. This was the first fly ball Brock Holt ever saw in the outfield – major or minor leagues:
After a week of playing left field they tried him in right:
Hell, why not let Brock Holt play center field for the defending World Series champions?
Brock Holt played shortstop and second base in the minor leagues. Short of having him come on in relief or put on catcher’s gear, the Red Sox have asked him to play every position save for the only two he has any actual experience playing. This is what “learning on the fly” looks like to a professional athlete.
But it’s not just in the field that Brock Holt has gone above and beyond the call of duty.
A year after having the best offense in the MLB, the Red Sox currently rank 26th in wRC+. Who’s picking up the slack? After Mike Napoli, Brock Holt has been your most productive Red Sox hitter in 2014 and took over as the every day leadoff hitter more than a month ago. He doesn’t appear to be giving it up any time soon.
Holt is sporting a .321/.364/.451 slash line, good for a .358 wOBA and a 124 wRC+. Prior this season, Holt slashed .250/.302/.298 with a 64 wRC+ during a 2012 stretch with Pittsburgh and last year’s stint in Boston. So what’s changed?
First, Holt, a lefty, is crushing left-handed pitching. After having no success with lefties to begin his career, Holt is actually running a pretty huge reverse platoon split this season, hitting lefties to the tune of a 147 wRC+ with a 108 wRC+ against right-handed pitching. Over half of Holt’s extra base hits this year have come off lefties. It’s been Holt’s ability to hit left-handed pitching that has allowed the Red Sox to leave him atop their lineup every day.
Holt has always had good bat-to-ball abilities. His career 87% contact rate rests well above the league average of 80%. Difference is, it appears thus far that Holt is beginning to understand his zone better.
Like a lot of lefties, Holt’s wheelhouse is low and inside:
A hitter’s wheelhouse is where it is. Holt has likely always had the most success against pitches low and inside. What he’s doing now, though, is giving himself more opportunities to do damage in this area by swinging more. Not swinging more overall, but swinging smarter. His swing rate within the strike zone hasn’t actually changed much, in fact he’s even been a little more selective, but it’s where Holt’s choosing to take his swings that’s making a difference:
Having your swing zone match up with your hot zone is a good thing. Brock Holt spent his first two stints in the majors swinging away at high cheese to little success. Now, it appears he has a better grasp on his zone, swinging at the pitches he should be swinging at, rather than the ones the pitcher wants him to.
And baserunning? Holt has been the Red Sox most valuable baserunner this year, too, with five steals and 11 extra bases taken in just 47 games. Their next best baserunner, Xander Bogaerts, has two steals and 13 extra bases taken in 30 more games than Holt.
All this being said, Brock Holt is not going to be an All-Star this year. Chances are he’ll never be an All-Star. Hell, it probably wouldn’t take much more than an extended cold streak and a fully healthy Red Sox roster for Holt to be out of a starting job or maybe even a place on a big league roster at all. But every time the Red Sox have had a leak somewhere, Holt has plugged it up.
For who Brock Holt is, the Red Sox have asked a hell of a lot from him this year. And for who Brock Holt is, he has done everything asked of him, and more.
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