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.