Brock Holt Has Been One of Baseball’s Best Hitters by Jeff Sullivan October 9, 2018 If Game 3 of the ALDS between the Red Sox and Yankees is going to be remembered, it’ll be remembered for up to three reasons. It could be remembered for Aaron Boone’s alleged mismanaging of the pitching staff, believing too strongly in Luis Severino and then believing too strongly in Lance Lynn for some reason. It could be remembered for Angel Hernandez having three separate calls at first base overturned by replay review. And/or it could be remembered for Brock Holt hitting for the cycle. Yes, the cycle is a silly accomplishment, and yes, the home run to cap it off came against the Yankees’ backup catcher. But it was somehow the first cycle in the entire history of the playoffs, and the author was literally Brock Holt. Holt is a 30-year-old utility player with a career wRC+ of 92. Including the playoffs, he has a total of 22 home runs to his name, and he didn’t so much as appear in Game 1 or Game 2. Holt’s entire identity is a big part of what makes this so delightful — you’d expect the first playoff cycle to belong to someone better. Someone like Willie Mays or Mookie Betts. Holt hitting for the playoff cycle feels like Adam Kennedy hitting three home runs in a playoff game against the Twins. I’ll say this much for Holt, though: This didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Of late, few hitters in baseball have been better than him. I can already hear you all pointing out the sample size. I, myself, am fully aware of the sample size. This isn’t my first time writing baseball analytics. But since August 9, 268 different players have batted at least 100 times. Holt ranks fifth in wOBA, tied with Justin Turner. He ranks 14th in expected wOBA, tied with Shohei Ohtani. Of course, regular wOBA can be noisy, and of course, expected wOBA is far from complete, but when the two are indicating the same general idea, then you have something to go on. Clearly, Brock Holt is on a hot streak. I looked at every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances on both sides of August 9. That gave me a sample of 245 names. Here are the five players who made the biggest improvements in expected wOBA: Christian Yelich, +.105 Mikie Mahtook, +.094 Brock Holt, +.093 Jedd Gyorko, +.087 Enrique Hernandez, +.075 Holt’s right there in third, and he’s almost in second. The guy in first has suddenly gone all Barry Bonds, but Holt has taken his own significant step forward. And you can see some further changes in the underlying data. Again looking at both sides of August 9, here are everyone’s changes in average launch angle and average exit velocity, with Holt highlighted in yellow: Out of all of these dozens upon dozens of players, Holt has had the ninth-biggest exit-velocity increase. He’s also had a top-20 increase in launch angle. And as long as I’m just throwing data at you, you know what we haven’t looked at yet? Spray charts. Here are spray charts! And bear in mind that Holt bats left-handed. The big change for Holt is that emphasis on the pull side. As Holt has been rolling for the past two months, he’s driven a lot more of his flies and line drives toward right field. That’s where he did all of his damage on Monday. Holt isn’t a big hitter. He’s not someone who’s likely to drive the ball out of the yard the other way. If he’s going to hit for power, it basically *has* to be toward right or right-center. Holt’s been able to do that more often, and so his production has skyrocketed. Brock Holt isn’t even an everyday player, but he’s chipped in like an MVP. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you’d see this as I would. For me, August 9 would stick out like a sore thumb, because it comes off as an arbitrary endpoint. When you’re dealing with streaks or slumps, you’re looking for reasons. Reasons to believe something could be meaningful. Now, I don’t think there’s a single one of us who’s ready to believe that Brock Holt is actually amazing, but August 9 wasn’t chosen at random. Allow me to excerpt from Jen McCaffrey at The Athletic: That [August 9] game in Toronto started out like many others with Holt grounding out in the first inning and then striking out in the third. So before his fifth-inning at-bat he had an idea. “I said, ‘Hey Mookie, can I use one of your bats?’” Holt recalled. “He said, ‘Sure,’ and I got a hit and kept using it.” On August 9, in the middle of the game, Holt borrowed one of Mookie Betts’ bats. He hasn’t gone back since. And this isn’t just about superstition, or hunting for better luck. Betts’ bats are structurally different. Here’s a screenshot from early on August 9: And here’s a shot from later in the same game: Of course, the color of the bat is different, but more importantly, the bats have different handles. Close observers will recognize that the second picture shows an Axe Bat. That is, a bat with a handle like an axe. The grip is only one part of a bat, and the bat is only one part of a swing, but we don’t understand bats all that well. By which I mean, I don’t think we have evidence that every single hitter in baseball is optimized, in terms of what he’s swinging. The Axe Bat isn’t a solution for everyone. McCaffrey writes the Axe Bat has been used by Sandy Leon. Sandy Leon is bad. But maybe Holt himself, Holt specifically, feels better. Maybe, for Brock Holt, something clicked. Not that we can point to just the bat alone. As McCaffrey continues, Holt had been working on some adjustments, and the bat might’ve just made them easier to fold in. The real main point here is just that August 9 wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. And there’s evidence to suggest that, somewhere around there, Holt changed as a hitter. As an example, here are his career rates of ground balls: Even more significant than that, here are his career rates of contact: That might be the most striking image in this article. For years, Holt was always a bat-control guy. He was someone who made a well above-average rate of contact. As Holt has hit better these past two months, his contact rate has dropped. That might be the opposite of what you’d expect. But as I interpret it, Holt has been more willing to whiff. He’s been less enthusiastic about slapping the ball to left field. Holt has simply been trading contact for power, and he’s still made enough contact for it to work. Of all people, Brock Holt has become more of a threat to hit for extra bases. One shouldn’t conclude that Holt is really as good as Justin Turner. One shouldn’t conclude that Holt is really as good as Shohei Ohtani. Holt’s career is still more meaningful than his past two months, and this might just be one of those situations where opponents eventually adjust right back. But the first cycle in playoff history has thrust Brock Holt into the spotlight, and, as it happens, about two months ago, Holt made some changes that have apparently had a real effect on his offensive output. This is hardly a lineup that needed the help, but the Red Sox wouldn’t mind another boost. There’s no such thing as scoring too many runs.