Partially because it is the objectively right thing to say, and less because of what kind of message it sends about whomever is saying it, the prevailing thought over the entirety of the Jackson Holliday era with the Orioles has been that he deserves time to adjust to the major league level.

There’s no disagreeing with that, at least in good faith. The Orioles are 7-3 in games Holliday has started and 10-4 overall since his call-up, even as Holliday is batting .059 (2-for-34) with a .170 OPS. As long as he keeps defending well — he’s already calculated to be worth three outs above average at second base by, which purveys MLB’s Statcast data — he’ll continue to get chances to bat at the bottom of the order, at least against righties, and get himself right.

But what, exactly, is Holliday trying to figure out? What’s behind all the strikeouts and swing-and-miss early in his major league career, and how fixable, exactly, is that particular issue for a 20-year-old rookie on the fly? Here are the three things that will determine how much leash Holliday gets and how quickly the game’s top prospect can turn around his fortunes in the majors.

Swing decision refinement

After so many Orioles prospect graduations over the last few years, this is the first place I look when a young hitter is having a tough time. Part of their core hitting philosophy on the player development side is swinging only at pitches you can drive, with the idea that the payoff for executing that plan over the long term is far greater than short-term drawbacks of potentially getting rung up on a borderline pitch coming up through the minors.

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Just look at how aggressive Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman, Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser are on pitches they can drive, and it’s pretty clear that training one’s eye to do that is effective. Going from Triple-A to the majors, however, seems to require a reframing of sorts for that mantra before it can fully take hold. Pitchers in the big leagues can locate pitches — often higher-quality pitches — better than anyone in the minors can, and pitches Holliday was rewarded for spitting on in the minors now nick the corners of the strike zone and put him in bad counts.

Henderson dealt with similar issues early in 2023, and Cowser had them last summer. Now, Holliday is going through that. He’s swinging at just 41.9% of pitches in what’s called the shadow of the plate — which is presented on as roughly from 3.3 inches outside to 3.3 inches inside the strike zone.

The league average is 52% and, despite not swinging as often as the rest of the league at those pitches, Holliday has been more negatively impacted in that area on his swings than his takes. We all have the mental image of Holliday taking backdoor sliders for strikes, but some combination of better defending those and less aggressiveness on shadow pitches down and in seems like it would help Holliday.

It’s tricky, though. Holliday’s plate discipline is one of his many true strengths, and abandoning or altering that too much probably doesn’t make a ton of sense at this point. But, if pitchers know they can just nibble and Holliday won’t swing, they’ll never be forced to come into the areas that Holliday is looking to do damage in.

Velocity work

Try as the Orioles might with their high-velocity drill work in the batting cage and challenging live batting practice on the field coming up through the minors, major league velocity is a different animal, and Holliday is learning that. He fared far better against velocity at Norfolk this year than he did at the end of last season, one in which one of the only warts one could find with Holliday was his performance against fastballs over 94 mph. He hit .167 off them with a .250 slugging percentage against a .319 expected slugging percentage for Norfolk in 2023. He was hitting .571 off such pitches with a .714 slugging percentage against a .591 expected slugging percentage when he was promoted.

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He also improved his whiff rate on them, down to 26.7% from 30.8% in Norfolk last year. The Orioles were looking for development in this area when they started him with the Tides out of camp. They saw it, but velocity has been a pain point for Holliday in the majors.

Baltimore Orioles second baseman Jackson Holliday (7) swings at a pitch during game three of a series against the Milwaukee Brewers at Camden Yards on April 14, 2024. The Orioles beat the Brewers, 6-4, to avoid getting swept in the series.
Holliday has been having difficulty against high-velocity pitches in the major leagues. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

He’s swung at 14 such fastballs and whiffed on 10 of them for a 71.4% rate in the majors, with many of those coming in the strike zone. To some extent, pitchers are using their fastballs to target those shadow areas of the strike zone where someone with Holliday’s eye is less inclined to swing.

You’ll hear many a major league hitter say that being ready for the fastball allows him to be ready to adjust to anything. Holliday is in the early stages of adjusting to that, and nothing about his track record suggests it will take long. It’s simply the type of exposure only the big leagues can provide a player, and Holliday seeing it at this early stage in the season will in all likelihood pay off later in the summer.

Continued excellence at second base

I’m often the last one to reference the last era of Orioles baseball fondly, but recall the debuts of Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop. Then-manager Buck Showalter was plenty happy to let them finish their development in the big leagues because of how they defended, and Holliday is earning his playing time at this point on the infield dirt, not in the batter’s box.

His 3 OAA, in an admittedly small sample, is in the top five of all second basemen according to Holliday is particularly adept at going to his right. His actual success rate of 71% is a good bit better than the expected success rate of 64%, and he has no errors to his name, even as there have been some challenging moments going backward for pop-ups at a relatively newer angle than he’s used to.

Other analytical evaluations aren’t as kind to his defense, but Holliday looks completely in his element while defending. That’s going to give him time to get the exposure therapy required for the adjustments at the plate.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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