I love weird baseball, and that’s part of a reason why I love the Red Sox this season. They’re trying to go from first-to-worst-to-first in three consecutive seasons. They’re running almost like a fantasy team where the owner has decided to punt all pitching categories, and just win on offense. And they’ve got a fundamentally bizarre bench.
What I want to talk about today is that interesting, nigh-unique bench — a bench that exists in no small part thanks to the talents of super-sub Brock Holt.
Holt’s 2014 was a revelation of sorts, because it revealed that Holt was good. Not great, not spectacular, not poor … but good. Good enough to, under the right circumstances, be a valuable part of a major-league ballclub.
But those results weren’t ever presented as a fait accompli. As you probably heard during a thousand columns during 2014, Holt was a former ninth-round pick who didn’t get the time of day for quite a while. Here are some quick quotes about Holt, from just three years ago.
“Brock Holt’s stock dropped with a letdown season.” — Baseball Prospectus Annual 2012
(Brock Holt’s stock was not very high prior to 2011, either.)
“The full trade has Brock Holt, an iffy second base prospect, going to the Sox … “ — Eno Sarris, FanGraphs (2012)
(“Iffy second base prospect” is the highest praise he’d garnered, to my knowledge, up to this point.)
It turns out that Brock Holt lacked tools, but never really lacked skills. Upon hitting the big leagues for an extended tour of duty with the Sox last season, he showed that he was a savvy baserunner, a good-enough hitter, and — best of all — a defensive Swiss Army knife.
It turns out that Brock Holt lacked tools, but never really lacked skills.
I track a stat I invented called the McEwing Score (McE). McEwing Score is a way to boil a player’s positional utility, or how often a player is used in different positions over the course of a season. In 2014, Brock Holt was the only player in baseball to achieve an McE of 82, tops in the league, and the best score in baseball since Sean Rodriguez in 2010.
An 82 equates to this: Brock spent time during at least two games at all the positions save catcher and pitcher. What’s even better? Brock earns some extra credit for spending time during eight or more games at all seven non-catcher, non-pitcher positions. Only Denny Hocking has done that before in baseball history, during his 2000 season for Minnesota. Brock also started seven or more games at each of those positions, and even Hocking never did that.
I used the Baseball-Reference Play Index to determine how often a Red Sox player has logged a McEwing Score as high — or higher — than Holt’s score of 82 from last season. The answer? Only two other Boston players have equaled Holt’s feat — Jack Rothrock in 1928 and Damian Jackson in 2003.
The difference between Holt and the group of Hocking, Rothrock, and Jackson — other than the hair, of course — is that Holt really could hit. Jackson had a True Average (TAv) of .214 in his time as Boston’s utility ace, and that’s code for he couldn’t hit at all. Rothrock existed in a time before fancy statistics, but his .333 on-base percentage and .343 slugging percentage don’t look good, even in the late 20’s. Denny Hocking had a career TAv of .230.
Holt is a banana of a different color. In 2014, he leveraged a little power and a lot of bat-to-ball ability to earn himself a respectable .261 TAv, which is just a hair over league average. Usually, when you have a bench guy who can play middle infield and hit at the league average, that player is immediately promoted to a starting role. However, this is Boston, so he sits below Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, and maybe even Mookie Betts on the middle infield depth chart.
So Holt has versatility, he has a little offense (which may regress a bit in 2015), and he’s shown enough defensive proficiency to launch a dozen Web Gems. He’s got grit coming out of his ears — hopefully not literally — and works hard at each position where he’s slotted.
This combination of skills is the first, and biggest part of why the Boston Red Sox are starting the season with an unorthodox bench. I took a survey of all 30 teams on RosterResource.com, and Boston appears as one of two teams that run the same guy out as the team’s only bench shortstop AND the team’s only bench third baseman AND the team’s only bench center fielder (along with the Indians and Mike Aviles).
Now, I realize that in a pinch, Pawtucket isn’t far away, and Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley, or Garin Cecchini is on speed-dial. But in the event of emergency, Brock Holt’s the dude behind the glass, waiting to be deployed at the drop of a batting glove.
Today, the Red Sox have a bench that some folks might find odd. They have a backup catcher (Sandy Leon), because every team must have one extra backstop. They have Holt to fill in almost everywhere else, though their lineup is riddled with multi-position players like Hanley Ramirez and Betts who could move and adjust as needed.
But with Holt in play, the Sox have the luxury of being able to carry not one, but two legitimate offensive weapons on just a four-man bench: Allen Craig and Daniel Nava. Neither Craig nor Nava covered themselves in glory during 2014, but both project to be potent hitters, especially in favorable circumstances.
Most teams carry a fourth outfielder who can play a variety of outfield positions. Think Darnell McDonald or Gabe Kapler or Dave Roberts. They also carry a backup middle infielder — your Alex Cora or Ciriaco. Not only is Brock Holt better than a bunch of those options (well, at least if he’s anything like he did in 2014), he also does the work of both with just one roster spot.
That leaves the Red Sox able to use bigger, better bats like Nava or Craig in pinch-hitting and platoon circumstances.
Thanks to Brock Holt’s nigh-historic versatility, the Red Sox have a foundation with which they can build a creative roster. Most teams couldn’t do what the Sox are doing without an extra bench player to cover either the middle infield or the heart of the outfield. By utilizing Holt in concert with a host of solid, versatile starters, the Sox have their cake and eat it too. Want a 12-man pitching staff? You can have that, and you can have two really good offensive options on your bench.
All you need is a guy with great hair, an ability to play every position with some modicum of defensive value, and enough offense not to make you cry into your chowder. All you need is Brock Holt.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.smugmug.com