On his way to being the Orioles’ No. 1 pick last year, Jackson Holliday set a national high school record for hits in a season, smacked 17 home runs, got on base in three-quarters of his plate appearances and had a 2.141 OPS back in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
To him, that was a “pretty good year,” much more of a “wow” than what he’s done in his full-season debut in the Orioles’ system.
“Everything, besides that, is kind of like underwhelming,” Holliday said. “That’s kind of the goal I’m chasing.”
That standard, of course, is unreasonable in professional baseball, though those numbers are about the only thing Holliday’s season pales in comparison to so far. Holliday has been by many measures the best hitter in all of minor league baseball. He has a 1.223 OPS with more walks than strikeouts and has hit six home runs. Last week, he was the South Atlantic League Player of the Week, having smacked eight extra-base hits with a 2.000 OPS in Winston-Salem.
The rest of us can and should be impressed; his All-Star father sure is.
“It’s really impressive,” Matt Holliday said Tuesday in Aberdeen, Maryland. “I’ve been really, not surprised, but he’s played extremely well. To play well enough to move up a league already, and as well as he’s playing here, it’s just been fun to watch as his dad.”
For the younger Holliday, the success is gratifying. He knows his career won’t be defined by a hot week in Aberdeen, or these two months of his first full pro season, or even how quickly he gets on to Double-A Bowie. His season has been a graceful glide along a player development tightrope, at once excelling against pitchers far older than him and constantly targeting areas of his game to improve on so he’s ready for his next challenge.
Holliday said: “Obviously, you work really hard and this is the kind of start that I would expect that I could have, like potentially, but to be able to actually do it and have some success and be able to carry it over week to week, it’s been pretty cool to be in this organization with the stuff that they teach, how they value things, and I’m trying to put it all into my game and it’s starting to work out. It’s been pretty neat.”
A good bit of Holliday’s success at Aberdeen is coming from the self-identified developmental goal he set for himself near the end of his time in Delmarva: he wanted to start pulling the ball in the air better. The left-handed hitting Holliday had a home run and two triples to right field last week, and increased his pull rate from 30.8% at Delmarva to 39.3% in Aberdeen.
Holliday believes he will always be able to hit the ball the other way, but knows more is required where he wants to end up.
“I’m not trying to be a minor leaguer,” he said. “I’m trying to become a big leaguer, and big leaguers are able to drive the ball all over the park and hit pull-side homers. Especially in Camden [Yards], I don’t think I’m going to hit very many opposite field home runs there so to be able to pull the ball and have every aspect of my game develop and be at the highest level it can be, it’s important to make adjustments.”
Aberdeen hitting coach Zach Cole credited Delmarva hitting coach Josh Bunselmeyer with creating a plan with Holliday to work on that skill that was easily transferrable when he was promoted. It included “exposing him to pitch shapes and things that may make it difficult in order to do that, and trying to pattern that in his body and his mind,” Cole said.
Holliday, Cole said, is “very self-driven.”
“He’s very understanding of how he needs to progress,” Cole said. “I think it’s been a really smooth transition from when he got sent up.”
He already boasted advanced strike-zone discipline — better even than the Orioles expected after the pre-draft process — but has excelled in applying it. Even the advanced hitters who have come through the Orioles’ system who knew which pitches to lay off took some time to home in on the ones in the zone they could drive. Holliday has proven adept at that, even making the steep jump to High-A. A level below, he got used to seeing fastballs in hitter’s counts, and at Aberdeen was getting himself out because he was swinging at 3-1 and 3-2 off-speed pitches.
“I’m just learning that and being able to really zone in on my pitches whenever I’m ahead in counts and lay off good pitches, because you’re looking for the one that you really need to hit,” Holliday said. “I’m learning, and I think I’m getting better at it.”
Cole said that skill of identifying those pitches a hitter can drive is “one of the harder things to teach.”
“It takes some really diligent time to pattern that with some guys, just understanding how the zone actually works,” Cole said. “A lot of times, we perceive it to be larger than it is. Jackson has kind of had that ever since I’ve known him.”
Orioles director of player development Matt Blood believes that skill is one of the reasons Holliday hasn’t missed a beat in jumping from Delmarva to Aberdeen.
“Jackson has the skill of strike-zone discipline, as well as the ability to make contact,” Blood said. “And those two things give you a chance in the box just about anywhere you’re competing, and for him, it’s just about his age and overall game maturity that he needs to continue to develop. He’s now doing it at the High-A level against a lot of players that are three, four years older than him. And he’s hanging in there because he’s able to swing at good pitches, and he’s able to put the ball in play at good angles. It’s not surprising, but it’s impressive. He’s a pretty special guy.”
The Orioles have found that extends beyond the field. Holliday has been under as bright a spotlight as there is in the organization, given his top prospect status. When he first got to Aberdeen, autograph hounds followed the team bus home from Wilmington, Delaware, and waited for him in the parking lot. Holliday has taken it all in stride, with Blood crediting his family for raising him so well and Holliday himself for following the examples of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson before him in dealing with the attention that comes with being a top prospect at affiliates so close to Baltimore.
That part, more than the baseball praise, is what Matt Holliday has enjoyed most about this season.
“I think I’m most proud of the things that are said about him as a kid, as a person,” Matt Holliday said. “It’s fun. I’m really impressed with how well he’s played.”
As far as the baseball goes, the younger Holliday’s performance has been impressive to his big league father because his talent has translated even against improved pitching — a testament to Jackson engaging with the process to work his way up and rise to each challenge.
“I think his quality of at-bats have just been really, really good, basically from the first day on,” Matt Holliday said. “He’s taking his walks, he’s driving the ball when they give it to him, and he’s not chasing the zone — all things that I’ve seen him do, but for him to be able to do it against guys at this level has been really, really impressive.“
Jackson Holliday said the feedback coming his way from his father is more simple. “That was a good game,” his father will tell him. “It was fun to watch.” Holliday thanks him, and that’s that.
“I think he’s seen some crazier things than me,” Jackson Holliday said, “but I think he’s proud.”