As the Red Sox continue to fight for a championship, an unexpected contributor emerges.
No one expected Brock Holt to be the first.
There have been 324 cycles in all of baseball history. The first 323 of them have all been hit during the regular season. Brock Holt was number 324, but the first in a postseason game.
Game 3 of the American League Division Series was filled with the unexpected: the Yankees’ bats going to sleep, the Yankees crowd being unusually quiet, and a Texas-born player with only 20 home runs for his career going up against a position player. A home run shy of a cycle at that moment, Holt knew this was his best chance to accomplish something no one has in history.
“You get a little antsy when a position player is on the mound,” Holt said to Yahoo! Sports. “I told everyone, ‘Get me up. I need a home run for a cycle.’ I was going to try to hit a home run, but I figured I’d ground out to first, be out in front of something. But I scooted up in the box a little bit, and I was going to be swinging at anything and try to hook anything. Obviously, you don’t expect to hit a home run, but I was trying to. I was trying to hit a home run. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever tried to do that.”
Although Holt’s cycle was meaningful, it took place during a meaningless game. The Red Sox easily outmaneuvered and outplayed the Yankees in Game 3, winning 16-1. Therefore, Holt’s incredible performance got overshadowed by Aaron Boone’s mismanagement of his starting pitcher and the barrage of runs that the Red Sox created.
It was unfortunate that Holt’s performance did not matter much in the grand scheme of this game. The chart below shows players who have hit for the cycle and their WPA, which measures how much their performances increased their chances of winning the ballgame they played in:
Holt’s line is second from the right and below 0.0 WPA. When his batting appearances are examined, this is unsurprising: three of his hits came when the game was out of reach, and his first hit came when the Red Sox held a 3-0 lead.
However, Holt’s home run in the ninth inning set off an explosive celebration in the Red Sox dugout at the expense of disheartened Yankees fans, who were already trudging dispiritedly towards the exits.
* * *
Holt’s ascension from utility player to starter was one that took many by surprise. A 30-year-old utility player with a career wRC+ of 92 is one that generally gets overlooked. With a Red Sox lineup that contains the likes of Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Andrew Benintendi, it is quite understandable why the average baseball fan may not know who Brock Holt is.
But the truth is that Holt has mostly been a consistent hitter throughout his career and was an All-Star in 2015, a year in which he hit .280/.349/.379.
What Holt managed to do in 2015, he is doing in 2018. As the first All-Star to play seven positions before the All-Star Game, Holt’s diversity on defense along with a 123 wRC+ in 2015 allowed him to give numerous starters off days without any decrease in production. Although he was never great at hitting pitches at the corners, Holt excels at punishing pitchers for missing their locations. As a result, the heatmap shows that when Holt is playing to the best of his ability he punishes the middle part of the strike zone.
The heatmap on the left shows vintage Holt whereas the heatmap on the right displays his period of struggle, which was after the All-Star Break through the 2017 season. The problem wasn’t Holt not hitting balls in play; in fact, during the end of 2015 through 2017, Holt’s BABIP was .297, which is only a couple ticks below the MLB average of .300. The main problem was that Holt’s contact became weaker. His Hard Contact% (29.9% during the first half of 2015) decreased by six percentage points as his soft and medium contact grew. In other words, Holt’s contact was weaker, resulting in him becoming less of an asset and more as a liability.
In 2018, especially in the second half of the season, Holt’s success in early 2015 was replicated. His Hard Contact% is back up over 29% (29.2%) and his Soft% is lower than 20% (18.8%). But that’s not the only improvement we’re seeing from Boston’s utility player.
Since August 9th, 268 position players have batted at least 100 times. Out of all these hitters, Holt ranks 5th in wOBA, tied with Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner. He ranks 14th in expected wOBA, tied with Angels’ phenom Shohei Ohtani.
Every baseball fan knows that Holt is not a top 10 hitter in the league. The change in Holt’s wOBA tells us then that he is one of the most improved since August 9th. Consider the top five most improved players by wOBA:
So the main question is: what has changed for Holt? The data would indicate that Holt has accomplished two important aspects to his swing: 1) he has achieved a higher average launch angle and driving the ball more successfully and 2) he has hit the ball substantially harder. Looking at the scatter chart, Holt’s dot in yellow displays this significant improvement compared to the other major leaguers (whose dots are in blue):
Out of all active major leaguers, Holt is in the top 20 in regards to increasing their launch angle and the ninth-biggest increase in exit velocity. Holt has also helped himself offensively by not hitting as many ground balls. As the diagrams below show, Holt had a tendency at the beginning of the year to pull ground balls to the right side of the infield, resulting in automatic outs. However, in the second half of the season, Holt has done a better job with bat control. The result was noticeable: Holt hit more line drives into the outfield.
Holt’s notable improvements have endeared him to Red Sox fans, who are looking for their first World Series championship since 2013. Despite Alex Cora making the decision to start Ian Kinsler in Game 4, most Red Sox fans thought Brock Holt should have started:
Holt should have plenty of opportunities to contribute against the Houston Astros. His team fell in Game 1 and Holt personally had a forgettable performance (0-for-4 with 3 K’s). The 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros, who largely return the same team from last year, have a deep lineup and a stellar pitching staff highlighted by a rejuvenated Justin Verlander. The Red Sox rebounded in Game 2, securing the 7-5 victory. The series now moves to Houston and Minute Maid Park where Holt hopes to get back on track.
If Brock Holt’s cycle has taught baseball pundits and fans anything, it is that we can expect surprising twists during the rest of this series.
(All statistics and information originated from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.)
Edited by Brian Kang.
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