If I told you in March that the Red Sox would have a rookie infielder hit .327/.371/.463 in the first half of the 2014 season, you would congratulate yourself for having the foresight to draft Xander Bogaerts for your fantasy team three years ago. If I told you that they had another rookie infielder hit .235/.311/.348 in the first half, you'd be happy that you talked your friend into believing that Brock Holt was a real prospect when he hit .344 in the Pirates system back in 2012.
It turns out that's an alternate universe: in our reality it is the unheralded Holt who has a .327/.371/.463 line and uber-prospect Bogaerts who is hitting .235/.311/.348.
I had Holt rated as a Grade C prospect entering 2014 and did not put him in my book this year. I did write him up in the 2013 edition, with the following comment:
Drafted by the Pirates in the ninth round in 2009 out of Rice University, Brock Holt isn’t a toolsy sort, but leveraged a line drive contact approach into an excellent 2012 season in Double-A and Triple-A, producing a combined .344/.406/.453 line. He’s not going to hit .344 in a full major league season, but he could probably hit .270 with some doubles and a fair OBP. He was primarily a shortstop last year, but scouts say that his range and arm strength are best-suited for second base. All-told, he fits best as a utility player, although his left-handed bat gives him a platoon advantage over roster competitors. I don’t see Holt as any sort of star, but players with fewer skills have had long careers, and he can be a useful complimentary player for a winning team. He was traded to the Red Sox in the Joel Hanrahan deal. Grade C+.
He's done yeoman duty for the Red Sox this year, seeing action at seven different defensive positions (everything except catcher and pitcher) while thriving offensively. Needless to say, Boston's disappointing season would look even worse without Holt's contributions.
So, fluke or not?
First of all, it's not like he never hit well before. He was very effective in college, and he hit .351/.410/.458 in an injury-shortened 47-game season in High-A in 2010. He was excellent in Double-A/Triple-A in 2012 (.344/.406/.453) and he held his own in a late trial with the Pirates. His hitting tailed off last year (just .258/.327/.309 at Pawtucket, .203/.275/.237 in the majors), but obviously he has the bat going again.
August Fagerstrom at Fangraphs wrote this article about Holt back in late June, cataloging Holt's contributions on defense. Fagerstrom also shows how Holt's feel for the strike zone has improved, breaking down his swing zones with some nifty graphics. His conclusions after looking at the data:
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.
Pitchers will make adjustments too, of course, so I wouldn't put Holt in line for any batting titles just yet.
However, based on the entirety of his track record going back to college, I think the assessment entering 2013 ("he could probably hit .270 with some doubles and a fair OBP") is still plausible, if on the low end. Now I think he's a "natural" .280 hitter who exceeds .300 in his best years when the BABIP falls his way and gets down into the .260s when it doesn't. It would also not surprise me to see him develop more power in his late 20s, and I imagine his walk rates will gradually rise as well, keeping his OBP reasonable even in weaker seasons.
Bogaerts is still the long-term investment play among Boston rookies, but Holt has real value, could have a long career, and should not be dismissed as a fluke.