First Pitch: Can Brock Holt Play Shortstop?

The most popular question I saw on Twitter tonight was “How many different movie titles, song titles, or Arrested Development references can we make using Brock Holt’s name?” The second most popular question was “Can Brock Holt play shortstop?”

Brock Holt(!) is off to a great start to his pro career, hitting for a .462/.500/.538 line in 14 plate appearances after tonight’s four-hit game. And he’s played shortstop in the past, even though he’s better suited defensively for second base. A guy off to a hot start at the plate who has played shortstop in the past usually leads to the “can he play shortstop in the majors” question.

We’ll get back to whether Holt can play shortstop in a second. First, let’s look at two other recent candidates for the shortstop position.

The first was Josh Harrison. He went on a ten-game hitting streak in late-May, and played a few games at short during that time period. His hitting streak brought his season OPS up to .774, which combined with the horrible offense from Clint Barmes, led to “Can Harrison play short” questions. Harrison has since dropped to a .649 OPS on the season.

Next was Drew Sutton. In his first 14 games with the Pirates, Sutton put up a .321 average and a .905 OPS.  He had played shortstop in the past, with seven games coming in Triple-A in 2011. However, he isn’t good defensively at the position, which is why he’s never been a regular there. But the combination of his offense and the still horrible offense from Clint Barmes led to “Can Sutton play short” questions.

And now we have Brock Holt, only after a quick tangent to the “Why isn’t Jordy Mercer getting any playing time at short” question. If there’s anything we should have learned from Harrison and Sutton, it’s that we should only give so much credit to small sample sizes.

The common theme in all of this is that Clint Barmes has been horrible offensively this year, which is making Pirates fans desperate for any solution that could field the position and do much better than Barmes at the plate. But don’t underestimate the impact of defense at short. It’s the hardest position to field, and it’s the most important defensive position in the infield, which is critical for the Pirates with all of their ground ball pitchers.

Barmes has been good defensively this year, which shouldn’t be overlooked. But his offense has been so horrible that it negates the value of his defense. He currently has a 17.5 UZR/150, which leads all major league qualifying shortstops. However, his offense makes him an 0.8 WAR player this year. He’s basically an expensive version of Brendan Ryan: all glove and no bat, while making about $4 M more per year.

Barmes is definitely replaceable. But you have to focus on the total package. You can’t just upgrade the offense and overlook the defense. There has to be some balance.

In Holt’s case, he’s not strong defensively. He lacks the range needed to be an asset defensively at shortstop. He could make up for that on offense. But we have to keep our expectations realistic there. Is Holt going to continue hitting the way he’s been hitting in his first four games? No. How far will he fall? I’d point to his minor league numbers as his ceiling. That’s a .317 average with an .808 OPS, and most of that coming from walks, rather than power. But that’s the best case scenario.

Holt doesn’t hit for much power. We’ve seen that so far, with five of his six hits going for singles. Even in his great campaign in Indianapolis he had a .105 ISO. He’s walking 7.1% of the time so far in the majors, and striking out 28.6% of the time. Most of his hits being singles, a high strikeout rate, and an average walk rate doesn’t usually lead to a great deal of success. Then again, it’s only 14 plate appearances.

I like Holt. He was ranked the number 19 prospect in the system in our rankings heading in to 2011. He dropped to number 32 this year, mostly due to his lack of power and drop in average in Double-A. This year he’s been hitting more like his 2010 season: still with no power, but hitting for a high average. That’s his ticket to being a starter. I have his upside as a utility player, not because I think it’s impossible for him to be a high average guy, but because I think it’s improbable. Most players don’t carry their numbers from the minors to the majors, especially if they lack power. So the odds of Holt hitting for his career minor league numbers in the majors are slim.

Defensively he doesn’t have the skills to provide value at short. He could make up for that offensively, but it would require him to hit closer to his minor league numbers.

Now it’s not fair to expect Holt to hit for an .800 OPS. Only two shortstops out of the 21 who qualify innings-wise at the position this year have an .800 OPS or better.  Only 11 of those 21 have an OPS over .700. Out of all of those shortstops with poor UZR/150 ratings (anything under 4.0, since that’s the average), only one has less than a .700 OPS. That’s Rafael Furcal, who has a .671 OPS, a -10.9 UZR/150, and a 1.1 WAR, making him worth 0.3 wins more than Barmes.

In order to be a worthwhile upgrade (we’ll judge that as one full win), Holt would have to put up something close to a .293/.333/.390 line. I took that line from Alcides Escobar, but I want to stress that this is in no way a comparison to Escobar. It’s just a look at the numbers and the values associated with those numbers. That’s certainly possible for Holt, but I think that’s closer to his upside offensively in the majors. It’s definitely not a guarantee.

Keep in mind that we’re also talking about one win over the course of a season, and we’re talking about it in September. That means we’re ultimately talking about less than 0.2 wins for the remainder of the year if Holt can play a win better than Barmes. That’s not a reason to avoid making a move. It’s just pointing out that Holt isn’t going to drastically change the team’s outcome. Also, to his credit, Barmes has put up a .650 OPS since the start of August. That, combined with his defense, isn’t that bad. Over a full season that would make him close to a two win player. But we’ve seen him struggle far more often this season, so it would be understandable to be skeptic about those numbers continuing throughout September.

The better plan with Holt is to get him regular time in the majors as long as he’s hitting. Use him at second base until Walker comes back. When Walker comes back, give him the occasional start at second or short, plus pinch-hitting duties. If he remains ridiculously hot, find a place for him in the lineup until that stops. Then, when the season is over, focus on his defense at short over the off-season. Try to get him to improve at short, enough to where he’d have a good chance of being a one win improvement or more over Barmes next season, throughout the entire season.

I don’t believe Holt’s upside is a starting shortstop. I think it’s more likely that he becomes a utility player. But that doesn’t mean the Pirates shouldn’t give him the opportunity. I just wouldn’t get my hopes up, especially when those hopes are largely based on a four game sample.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Astros 6-2.

**Pirates Notebook: Holt, McCutchen Pick Up Four-Hit Nights.

**Injury Updates: Starling Marte, Chad Qualls, Neil Walker, Travis Snider.

**Prospect Watch: Glasnow Impressive in SC Debut; DSL One Win Away.

**Tyler Glasnow Hits 96 MPH in State College Spikes Debut.

**GCL Pirates 2012 Season Recap: Top Prospects.

**GCL Pirates 2012 Season Recap: Pitchers.

**GCL Pirates 2012 Season Recap: Hitters.

**Pirates Sign 21st Round Pick Jordan Steranka.

**Starling Marte to Rehab in State College and Indianapolis.

**Minor League Schedule: 9/5/12.

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About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Lee Young

    Personally, I feel, as long as he hits, you can always use Barmes as a late inn defensive replacement?

    I’d still like to see Mercer get more playing time.

  • ecbucs

    I could see Holt as a Jeff Keppinger or Ryan Theriot (without speed) type player which means he could do well enough to be a starting shortstop for a year or two.

    At this stage, I don’t think Barmes should be projected as anymore than a utility player for 2013

  • http://www.facebook.com/casey.jensen.547 Casey Jensen

    Yea I really wonder why Mercer can’t get any days at short… He’s got solid defense so there wouldn’t be much, if any, of a dropoff in defense and any guy out there with the ability to play shortstop has the potential to upgrade us on offense… And it’s not like I’m expecting Mercer to tear the cover off the ball, it’s just weird to me seeing a guy like him on the bench(a guy we have a very small sample size of in the majors at this point. And is a true SS unlike Harrison, Sutton or Holt.) while we continue to keep throwing Barmes out there. Like Lee said, we can always put Barmes in as a defensive substitution if we really needed to but we have got to give some of his at-bats to somebody else. Especially with it pretty much being “do or die” until seasons end if we want one of those wildcard spots.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t get the Mercer thing. I can understand that his offense isn’t great (.630 OPS in 54 AB). But the offense from Barmes has been worse most of the year. And when Barmes gets time off, Josh Harrison starts. Harrison has a .649 OPS in 202 AB and Mercer is better defensively. So there’s no reason to start Harrison over Mercer.

  • leadoff

    In Holts case IMO, stats mean nothing when trying to project whether he can play SS or not play SS.
    David Eckstein no arm, barely enough to be a 2B, much less a SS. Holt has him beat every way there is physically. All Eckstein did was win the 2006 WS MVP, not because of his fielding. David Eckstein hit .280 for his career, he had one year when he had 20
    errors (2007) 2 others where he had no errors. If we went by stats he
    would never have made it out of the minors.
    Tim, the most important trait that Holt brings to the table is he is a leadoff hitter in the true sense of the word, if he could not excel at the leadoff position he probably would be a utility player. On a team with the worst leadoff hitting in baseball he is exactly what the doctor ordered.
    What makes more sense, Barmes hitting .210-215 or Holt setting the table for McCutchen at around .300. Holt may not turn out to be a Hall of Fame SS, but sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot. Holt makes McCutchen even better than he is, think about it?
    I want to say this about Barmes, to me he would be the SS on this team if they had anyone else that could leadoff, but they don’t and the only postion left on this All Star packed team that Holt has a chance of playing is SS.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      A .300 leadoff hitter would be great if that’s what Holt can do. And I’d be all for giving him a shot to prove himself. But I’m not going to say he’s a .300 hitter yet. That’s difficult to do. Just because he did it in the minors doesn’t mean he’ll do it in the majors. Josh Harrison had a .306 average in the minors, but that hasn’t translated over. Until it does for Holt, he’s not really a leadoff hitter. He’s just a guy who might be a leadoff hitter.

  • piratemike

    Can Brock Holt’s girl friend play SS?

    • piratemike

      Apparently the person who gave me a v didn’t see Holts GF last nite.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=72405411 Ian Rothermund

        Lol.

  • http://twitter.com/mjdouble Marcus J

    I’m not putting my hopes on 14 major league plate appearances. I’m putting my hopes in the 1620 plate appearances he had in the minor leagues. The guy put up a .380 OBP in the minors. If he can put up a .340 in the majors I think we can all live with what his limitations are at shortstop. Can he get there? I’m not sure but I think he has better chance of sustaining numbers at the major league level than Mercer or Harrison. His numbers held fairly constant with each advancement. And he puts the ball in play. Contact hitters just seem less prone to extended slumps.

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Harrison, Holt, Mercer and anyone else on the Pirates roster other than Barajas all hit significantly better than the ‘hot’ version of Barmes. I’d take any of them. Barmes has lost some games on defense recently, get him out of there.

  • RandyLinville

    I’d love to see Brock Holt get as much of a chance to show us that he can’t adequately play SS as Drew Sutton got to show us he can’t adequately play OF.

    But I don’t believe that we’ll see Holt at SS. P2′s own Kristy Robinson tweeted earlier today that Hurdle puts Holt at 4th on the SS depth chart.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

    The one thing this article and posts makes clear is that Barmes has no business being the starting SS on this team. People will always point to his defense being good this season and for the better part of the season it was, but I would strongly differ with anybody who says it has even been adequate over the last couple months. I’m really starting to have issues with Hurdle. He keeps running Barmes and Barajas out there as if they are some kind of world beaters and to list Holt as the 4th best option at SS is pure lack of common sense. Holt has by far been the best leadoff hitter they have had all season and needs to be in the lineup until he proves he can’t do it. I could also care less what the so called stats suggest his WAR is over Barmes, sometimes numbers lie and if Holt can hit .280 – .300 or better and take some walks setting the table for Cutch, Jones, and Alvarez then his value is WAY over the so called WAR stat might indicate compared to Barmes. First Jordy Mercer wasn’t given a chance, now it sounds as if Holt won’t be given a chance. It just makes me wonder what Barmes has over Hurdle, it must be something big.

  • burgh_fan

    Tim, I know you hate the former Pirates compairsons but I think this one applies here. I see Holt’s upside as Freddy Sanchez. Holt and Sanchez have similar skill sets in my veiw both have great contact skills and minimal power and while both could theoretically play shortstop they are better suited defensively for other positions.

    Holt does seem to have at least the potential to have a slightly better walk rate than Sanchez but probably has some work to do to get his strike out rate as low as Sanchez. Also I believe both player’s calling cards in the minors are that they just continued to hit as they moved up. Its not an exact comparison but I do some similarities there.

  • ElGaupo77

    I think that Freddi Sanchez is a good comp. The problem is that Freddi Sanchez would be Walker’s backup. Defense and power are so important and Walker would have both over Sanchez.

  • SweetNick

    For What it’s Worth…
    Holt looks to have excellent plate patience. On Sunday, I think he saw 27 pitches. Leadoff hitters with plate patience and an OBP >.350 are much more valuable than Josh Harrison, or for that matter, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata.
    I understand the WAR calculations and such, but from a common sense baseball perspective, Holt earned about 0.4 wins last night.
    In spring training 2 years ago, I was watching the minor leaguers work out without a roster sheet, therefore not knowing one guy from another. I asked the guy sitting in front of me who was batting because he was beating Quenton Miller (I was later told) like a rented mule. Turns out the guy in front of me was Gary Green, minor league roving infield instructor. Of course, Holt was the guy batting. Green’s comments, loosely quoted, “Brock Holt can flat out hit”. And based on what I’ve seen, albeit in a SSS, he looks to have an excellent approach.
    I don’t think we should temper the enthusiasm here. I’ll call future batting champion. Where he plays I have no idea…

  • http://twitter.com/wondertaint Will

    Even if Holt falls off to ~.280, he’s still an upgrade at leadoff. I especially like that when Marte is back, he can slot into the two spot – pushing Walker/Snider back and strengthening the entire line-up. Holt (SS), Marte (LF), McCutchen (CF), Jones (1B), Alvarez (3B), Walker (2B), Snider (RF), McKenry (C) offers everybody in the line-up some protection.

    On a side-note: I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if Neil Walker could play SS. He’s no doubt got the arm and he’s been strong up the middle as a 2B (although weak to his glove side). If they had him a step or two up the middle, I think he’d have comparable range to at least Holt/Harrison – and his bat plays pretty well there. Just wonderments.

  • Marco Rincones

    Neil Walker playing shortstop for anything other than freakish situations is not gonna happen – period. Don’t mess with Walker’s success at 2nd. He may be the NL’s most complete 2b when healthy.