Fredericksburg, Va. — Jackson Holliday spent the first week-plus of Delmarva’s season spraying hard line drives all over the field when pitchers came into the strike zone against him, and happily accepting a walk when they didn’t.
And he wasn’t satisfied with it.
Before the Shorebirds got to work this week, he went to hitting coach Josh Bunselmeyer with an issue he wanted to address, showing all at once his mental aptitude as a hitter and his ability to apply the changes that can help last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick climb quickly to the majors.
Bunselmeyer said: “He was taking a couple swings where he was like, ‘Man, I feel like I should crush that ball, but I’m kind of just hitting a hard liner up the middle or the other way, which is great, but I feel like I can hit that ball out.’ We looked at some video, and his weight was moving a little bit differently that we didn’t like, and he was putting his hands a little further apart from his body — which is exactly what he explained and we saw that on video and just talked through a couple things.”
The resulting batting practice featured “pullside bombs,” Bunselmeyer said, the likes of which Holliday hadn’t been producing consistently. Add that to a game that already includes hard contact and strong swing decisions, and Holliday showed that even one of the best starts to the season of any Orioles prospect can still be improved on.
“It’s a jumping off point,” Bunselmeyer said. “He knows that, identified it, and is ready to roll.”
For an Orioles organization that has seen that type of self-driven improvement launch the likes of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson to the majors, those types of moments will mean just as much as Holliday’s production — which is impressive on its own.
In Tuesday’s series-opener against Fredericksburg, Holliday added two more singles to bring his average to .371 with a 1.071 OPS. While he hasn’t yet homered, he has more walks (nine) than strikeouts (seven) with six extra-base hits. Including his cameo in Delmarva last year, he entered Tuesday with an .897 OPS and a 157 wRC+ in 96 plate appearances in Low-A while walking in 24% of his plate appearances.
Bunselmeyer, who was the hitting coach at the Florida Complex League last year when Holliday signed, said he’s working with a hitter who has grown since then.
“One, he’s just way more physical this year than he was last year,” Bunselmeyer said. “Last year, it was a good swing but didn’t hit balls quite hard enough, he’d hit them a little too high at times. This year, he’s been a guy who has been hitting balls harder — and hard enough — and a little bit better ball flight. Not quite as much balls that are spinning up in the outfield, but balls that are driven out there and line drives that are crushed the middle or the other way. He’s always controlled the zone very well from what I remember last year, right after the draft, but this year he’s doing that and also just physically handling velocity, handling off-speed, and just hitting the ball harder.”
Holliday’s own assessment of his season so far is similar. He happily accepts his walks, and knows that being able to control the strike zone and put a good swing on balls in the zone is “very important.”
When he was in major league camp with the Orioles, he said he spent as much time as possible observing how Rutschman and Henderson worked and tried to mimic it to start building his own professional routine.
“What made them so successful is controlling the zone and doing damage in the strike zone,” Holliday said. “Being able to take that into practice every day has been very helpful.”
In many ways, Henderson’s path to the majors is something of a north star for Holliday. Henderson was presented as an example to the 2022 draftees after they signed of the kind of success one can have when they embrace challenging themselves by buying into the organization’s difficult hitting drills and swing decision program. He improved in 2020 at the alternate site against far older competition and used it as a launching point into a 2021 season that, like Holliday this year, began at age 19 in Delmarva.
He ended that year in Bowie, and Holliday’s insistence on challenging himself and not settling for good-enough is motivated by replicating that.
“I’d obviously like to make it to Bowie,” he said. “That’s the goal, right? Double-A, and then the next year have a shot at making the big league team towards the end of the year. That’s kind of my goal, personally, but just putting myself in the best position to do that and give them no choice but to move me up is kind of the way that I’m approaching it. I feel like if I keep doing that at this pace, it should happen, but it’s all part of the plan. I’m just going to take it day-by-day and just go out and compete.”
Considering his top-pick reputation, competing for Holliday may mean nights when pitchers don’t want to attack him and potentially get hurt by it. When that happens in games, his mindset of being challenged as much as possible before the game has proven crucial.
“We joke around: You face a guy who may not have the best stuff and it’s like, ‘All right, [minor league hitting coordinator Anthony] Villa had better stuff than him during BP today,’ ” Holliday said. “You’re prepared. But each day, we have the machine turned up to really make the guy’s fastball better than it actually is in the game, better curveball than it actually is in the game, so when you get in the game, it’s a lot easier. We try to make it as hard as possible, so it’s a little easier out there.”
For this reason, Holliday’s pregame work is a vital part of his development. Henderson had just 157 plate appearances in Delmarva in 2021, with a .944 OPS, so within a few weeks Holliday could be deemed ready for a new challenge. Until then, hitting coach Bunselmeyer said the way Holliday challenges himself before games is “awesome.”
“He might take a round or two where he’s like, ‘I just want to feel myself take a couple swings the other way’ or whatever, and then say, ‘Full mix, come after me,’” Bunselmeyer said. “We have multiple guys that’ll do that on the team. The Gunnar example is one — the guy embraced it. Rutsch embraced it. And those guys have really taken off. Jackson’s in that same boat.”
Manager Felipe Rojas Alou Jr. added: “That shows how mature the kid is, all-around. His game all-around is like that. He takes very seriously preparing during practice, not only offensively but also defensively.”