No. 1 Prospect Jackson Holliday’s One Flaw


Image credit: Jackson Holliday (18) Norfolk Tides vs Oklahoma City Dodgers in the AAA Championship game at Las Vegas Ballpark in Las Vegas, Nevada on Saturday, September 30, 2023 (Photo by Eddie Kelly / ProLook Photos)

Orioles shortstop Jackson Holliday is the No. 1 prospect in baseball. He’s the reigning Minor League Player of the Year. The year before that he was High School Player of the Year. He enters 2024 as one of the favorites to be the American League Rookie of the Year.

The 20-year-old is an outstanding prospect and should be one of the better players in baseball over the next decade. It’s hard not to get excited about Holliday’s potential.

But no player is perfect. In Holliday’s case, his one blemish is worth monitoring as he competes for a spot in Baltimore’s Opening Day lineup at second base or shortstop. It also explains why he’s not viewed as a potential third baseman.

Holliday’s arm is short for shortstop at this point in his young career. Players can improve arm strength with healthy doses of long toss or other training techniques. But right now, arm strength is the only big question for the top prospect in baseball.

Holliday has quick hands, a fast exchange and quick release. His body control is excellent and he seems to have the ability to know where everyone is on the diamond, even when he’s running with his back to home plate to try to run down a fly ball.

As a savvy and advanced player for his age, Holliday figures out ways to ensure that his arm is rarely a hindrance. He has mastered a hip slide that allows him to pop up and throw when needed.

But he rarely lets it rip on a throw.

In his month at Triple-A Norfolk to end the 2023 season, Holliday averaged 78.4 mph on his throws from shortstop, as tracked by MLB Statcast. His fastest throw on any play in the infield was 83.1 mph. The league average for MLB shortstops was 86.3 mph, according to Statcast.

Elly De La Cruz and Masyn Winn are outliers on the upper end of the range. De La Cruz averaged 95 mph on his throws and topped out at 100, while Winn averaged 92.4.

But of the 65 MLB shortstops who had enough throws to qualify for a Statcast ranking in 2023, just three—Nick Ahmed, Thairo Estrada and David Fletcher—averaged throws slower than Holliday’s 78.4 mph. And 38 of the 65 qualified MLB shortstops had a higher average velocity on their throws than Holliday’s max throw of 83.1 mph.

To get a better understanding of Holliday’s defensive ability, I watched well over 100 plays he made in the minors in 2023, including every televised extra-effort play, every non-routine throw and every ball at shortstop where he fielded the ball moving to his right.

Watching that many plays, I saw a lot of what makes Holliday special. With two outs in a tie game in the 11th inning against Hudson Valley, Holliday saved the game for High-A Aberdeen with his savvy. Spencer Jones was running from second on a slow chopper well to Holliday’s left. Holliday realized he wasn’t going to be able to throw out the runner at first, but he decoyed a throw anyway, then spun and fired home to nab Jones by five feet. Aberdeen then won the game in the 12th.

You see numerous examples of Holliday’s feel for the game. He knows when he can take his time on a throw and when he needs to get rid of it quickly. He seemed to be in sync with a wide variety of double-play partners, which was a necessity for a player who played at four different levels.

Holliday’s range to his left is excellent. He regularly ranges beyond second base to make plays on choppers that would be tough for a second baseman going to his right to turn into outs. He is equally adept at coming in on choppers, fielding and throwing in one fluid and quick motion. Holliday also has soft and sure hands. He made just 13 errors all season.

That range also plays into his ability to cover for his arm. At shortstop, he often sets up shaded significantly toward third base when a righthanded hitter bats with the bases empty. In these situations, he doesn’t have to worry about covering second base on a ball hit to an infielder.

By setting up in the hole, he ensures that he can fluidly field most ground balls with his momentum moving toward first base. Having watched dozens of plays, I realized that Holliday wants to play the ball on or to the left of his left foot if he can. With his range, positioning and anticipation, he generally does. He circles the ball to ensure he doesn’t have to backhand it, and he manages to do everything needed to avoid having to field a ball to the right of his right foot if at all possible.

By way of comparison, Orioles shortstop Gunnar Henderson fields more balls to his backhand in a month than Holliday does in a season. Henderson is much more comfortable relying on his arm to make that play. Holliday relies on his feet and hands.

I struggled to find examples of plays in which Holliday ranged to his right at shortstop, fielded a ball to his backhand, set his feet and fired. Four of Holliday’s 12 errors at shortstop in 2023—plus a couple of miscues on plays that were ruled as hits—came when he had to field the ball to the right of his right foot. 

But that doesn’t mean Holliday can’t play shortstop. He’s rangy and has a quick release. He just plays the position differently than someone like Henderson.

It will be interesting to see how the Orioles sort out their crowded infield. Holliday will do things differently than Henderson because he has different strengths and weaknesses. And it explains why Holliday projects as an exceptional second baseman or a quality shortstop, but likely not a long-term option at third base.

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