Jackson Holliday always finds wisdom on the other end of the phone when he calls home to Oklahoma. Upon learning he’d be out at least a week with illness last month, Holliday’s mother, Leslee, had a particularly salient pearl of it for her precocious older son.
“If the season ended today,” she told him, “you would have accomplished an unbelievable task.”
Holliday took a moment to let it sink in.
“She was kind of right,” he said. “This is kind of unheard of.”
And yet he’s not done. Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft, became the game’s consensus top prospect within a year as he climbed two levels to Double-A Bowie, where he’s batting .350 with a .981 OPS. He’s batting .336 with a .988 OPS overall at age 19 in his first full season, and although Bowie is in a playoff chase of its own this month, loftier heights seem in play.
Triple-A Norfolk already has a playoff spot clinched, and Holliday’s swift rise through the minors has already brought forth the question, locally and nationally, as to whether he could help the Orioles down the stretch and into what would be their first playoff run since 2016.
Holliday has heard it all and admits, “I think about it a lot.” It’s not as if he can escape it. He’s on social media, and a segment on MLB Network discussing whether he should be in the big leagues played on the television screens in the Bowie clubhouse this month.
“I don’t know how a lot of people would trust me as a 19-year-old, but I think I would be able to definitely hold my own,” Holliday said of his potential to play in the majors right now. “It would be quite something to be called up — shoot, that one kid [Los Angeles Angels top pick Nolan Schanuel] just got called up after six weeks in the minor leagues, so anything is possible. But that would be something.
“I think there’s a lot of guys that probably deserve it a little bit more, like Joey [Ortiz], who has been killing it all year, and Heston [Kjerstad], who has shown he can hit any pitcher that steps on the mound. It would be quite a blessing to be able to get called up and be able to experience that.”
That it’s even a conversation speaks to just how impressive Holliday has been at such an age. Over the last three years, Bowie manager Kyle Moore has watched multiple players from his clubhouses climb to the majors — Gunnar Henderson, Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg and Ortiz among them, with Kjerstad and Coby Mayo not far behind. But he calls back to another talented teenager he shared a clubhouse with when Moore was an Orioles farmhand: Manny Machado.
“I just think, how good can he be?” Moore said. “What does the potential look like?”
“It’s uncharted territory for me to see a player succeeding at the level he’s succeeding at, to be so young, and for the game to just come to him so easy is something I can’t really process, honestly.”
That ease with which all of this seems to happen is both the reason Holliday reached Double-A so quickly and perhaps why he may not be there through the end of the season. The Orioles seem to have a certain amount of plate appearances they seek prospects to get at certain levels in the minors, but they move them at an accelerated pace to find a challenging level that forces a player outside his comfort zone to spur development.
Holliday is finding it in spurts at Bowie, though still making things look plenty simple. He takes reminders that baseball is a very difficult game in stride and keeps the reality that his next at-bat isn’t too far in the future at the front of his mind when things do turn south. He had a tough spell in Aberdeen in June, consulted video to realize there was nothing different from when things were going well, and continued to trust his process until things turned around.
He’s finding now at Bowie that pitchers are more consistently making better pitches against him and, when they do get behind, they are trying to goad him into swinging at a borderline pitch to get himself out. That reinforces his focus on laying off those pitches and bringing them back into an area of the strike zone he can drive — or taking his walks, which he’s done six times in his last three games.
“There’s 100 people in the stands every night that want his autograph, and his days are long. So that’s his biggest challenge — managing this little superstardom that he sort of brings.”— Bowie manager Kyle Moore
Moore said he’s challenging Holliday by finding him as many at-bats against lefties as he can — Holliday entered Sunday with an .831 OPS in 92 plate appearances off lefties across three levels this year, compared to a 1.016 OPS off righties — as well as playing him every day to get him used to those demands as quickly as possible.
“I think he’s totally prepared for it, but I still think it’s a challenge for a 19-year-old to play 100-plus games, playing every day,” Moore said. “There’s 100 people in the stands every night that want his autograph, and his days are long. So that’s his biggest challenge — managing this little superstardom that he sort of brings.”
Nowhere on his list of challenges are the usual aspects of his game young players are dinged with around the time a conversation about his major league future begins: his plate discipline and his defense. Holliday handles velocity well, demonstrates elite understanding of the strike zone and has the second-highest on-base percentage (.452) of anyone with at least 300 plate appearances in the minors this year.
And, working with Orioles minor league infield coordinator and Bowie fundamentals coach Tim DeJohn since his promotion, Holliday has honed an advanced defensive skill set at a faster level than DeJohn has ever seen before.
DeJohn recalled watching Holliday in major league camp on the Earl Weaver little field with a group of major league infielders and noting his polish, leaving that infield session believing there was no drop-off between the teenager and the big leaguers.
Seeing him every day for the last month-plus, he keeps noticing more and more things he likes. He says Holliday’s internal clock is “really, really impressive.” He appreciates how Holliday came to Bowie wanting to work on his backhand and was able to apply the adjustments within one or two practice reps, and how he comes into the dugout seeking immediate feedback after a play.
Typically at this level, DeJohn said, players either need to be introduced to or heavily focus on the idea of playing one-handed. Holliday showed up doing it.
“That was really, really refreshing, and his ability to play downhill a little bit — he plays very flowy, very syrupy,” DeJohn said. “He’s kind of like a deer out there — there’s not much wasted movement. The way that he moves his feet, he creates a lot of space on balls that he moves back on — the drop step, in a sense. He creates a lot of space and changes hops with his feet really, really well.”
DeJohn acknowledges saying as much might put pressure on Holliday, but he believes everything about him on defense amounts to a future Gold Glove-caliber shortstop. Holliday believes that, working with DeJohn, he’s “gotten a lot better defensively since I’ve been here in a short amount of time.” And he knows why that matters.
“It’s very important to the Orioles, and where they’re at right now, fighting for a division title and a playoff race,” Holliday said. “You’ve got to be able to pick it.”
Even if he acknowledges “not getting his hopes up” on joining that fight this year, everything he’s doing at Bowie is viewed through that spectrum. There are countless reasons he may be doing himself a favor and tempering expectations — everything from the Orioles’ crowded middle infield picture and those players he believes deserve it more than he does to the service time considerations — but Holliday’s own abilities are not one of them.
“I think it’s really flattering that people are talking like that about Jackson, who’s 19,” Moore said. “That says something about his year, says something about our player development system, and says a lot about where we’ve gone since he showed up until now.”