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After a lost season, Kyle Holder’s bat has finally come alive

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Long known for his glove, Kyle Holder’s recent offensive production shows that he has more to offer the Yankees than just defense.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the 30th overall pick in the 2015 draft, the Yankees selected shortstop Kyle Holder from the University of San Diego. The pick was immediately polarizing among Yankees fans, as scouting reports on Holder billed him as having modest offensive ceiling that would limit his overall game. After a strong finish to the 2017 season, it looked as if Holder was ready to take a major step forward, only to see his 2018 campaign derailed with injuries and personal tragedy. Now, with over half a season in the books playing for the Double-A Trenton Thunder, Holder is heating up and trying to shed the “all glove, no bat” label.

Holder was considered the best defensive shortstop available in the 2015 draft, but his bat has always been in question. An outstanding athlete who initially planned on playing both basketball and baseball during his year at junior college, he shifted his focus to baseball due to the professional opportunities it presented him. Despite his physical abilities with the glove, most of the draft ratings that year felt that the Yankees reached for Holder with the 30th pick, as he was most commonly ranked in the 50’s on draft boards, and even lower by various scouts analyzing the draft class. The fears about his bat seemed justified, as he has never produced at a league average level as a professional.

After a slow start to his 2017 season, Holder caught fire hitting .355/.400/.458 over his last 51 games. He continued producing solid offensive numbers, with an .878 OPS when given the opportunity to play alongside many of the best prospects in baseball during the Arizona fall league. These strong performances earned him a long look with the big league club during 2018 spring training. This is where Holder’s season started to go downhill.

Holder fractured a vertebrae prior as spring training was winding down, leading to a lengthy stint on the injured list. He did not play his first game until late May, and had not yet regained his form from the previous season when personal tragedy struck. In early June, Holder’s older brother passed away unexpectedly, and Kyle missed most of the month on the temporary inactive list. Holder pressed forward, returning to the field in late June, only to suffer a concussion as the result of a collision at second base. In the end, Holder only played 48 games in 2018, with poor offensive numbers that fit the narrative that followed him since draft day.

When teams take a college player in the first round, they hope for athletes that move quickly through the system. Yet after 2018, Holder was eligible for the Rule-5 draft, and the Yankees left him unprotected in the process. Holder could easily have been written off as a bust and an organizational type guy, but some in the system saw improvements heading into this season.

When asked of anyone in the Yankees system to keep an eye on, the Yankees head of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer answered “I really think you’re gonna see some good things, if he can get healthy, from Kyle Holder... I was just out there in California and I watched what he was doing. There was more impact in the bat. He can flat-[out] play defense. That part ought to be exciting.” With this quote from the Yankees brass, expectations were once again raised on Holder heading into this season.

After a painfully slow start in April where he hit just .175, Holder improved in May, and his season has taken off since June 11th as he is hitting .348/.390/.533 in 24 games during that stretch. His season wRC+ is up to 113, and that would be the first time in his professional career he has posted above league average offense. His defense has long been major league ready, and he could potentially fit as a defensive specialist, but if he wants a shot at a roster spot for a perennial contender like the Yankees, he will have to produce with the bat as well.

Holder could be on the verge of breaking the glove-only stigma that has long, and justifiably, been placed on him. He has improved enough that Yankees management praised him before the season, and now his production is backing up those observations. Holder’s glove is among the best in the system, but the question remains: can he sustain his recent offensive production and earn a spot on the the 40-man roster at the end of the season? The answer could validate the Yankees’ decision to use a first-rounder on him four years ago.