The shortstop position holds a considerable amount of prestige and importance. As the unofficial captain of the infield, the shortstop is responsible for positioning, situation, execution. A unique blend of agility and dexterity is required to play on the left side of the diamond. It is a position that was predicated with defense exclusively throughout much of baseball history. After the emergence of Cal Ripken Jr., shortstops evolved into skilled offensive players in addition to their defensive prowess. Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter would redefine the position as two-way players, with the latter becoming a cultural icon. His recent retirement leaves a gaping void in the Bronx, as the Yankees seek for his successor. The search extended into the 2015 draft where the University of San Diego shortstop Kyle Holder takes the first step towards the Bronx after being drafted by the Yankees in the first round with the 30th overall pick.
Athleticism and grace are the benchmarks for any defender at shortstop and are traits cultivated during years of childhood development. These skills can translate to multiple aspects of competition and for Kyle Holder, the basketball court became his first foray into organized sports. Recruited in both basketball and baseball out of high school, Holder attended Grossmont College seeking to become a two-sport athlete, but began to see a more practical future in baseball given his size and opportunities. After averaging 21.3 points per game on the court in 2012, Holder chose to focus exclusively on baseball, becoming a quality defensive shortstop with an emerging bat, hitting a .405/.447/.446 slash line in his freshman year at Grossmont. Holder would transfer to the University of San Diego for his next two collegiate seasons, culminating with West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors in 2015 with a .348 batting average and consideration for the Brooks Wallace Award, as one of the top shortstops in the nation.
Emerging offensive production complimented stellar defensive credentials. The footwork and speed from his days on the hardwood translated to the shortstop position, where he displayed strong range and fundamentals, while making just three errors in 127 chances. Holder’s defensive abilities caught the eye of Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, who compared him to eleven-time gold glove winner Omar Vizquel shortly after the club drafted him at the end in the first round. “There’s not a lot of guys, when you watch them take ground balls you go, ‘I want to watch this guy take ground balls,’” Oppenheimer said. “That’s how it was with him. I got there early in Cleveland to watch Omar Vizquel take ground balls and this guy can do some of those things Omar could do,” (New York Post). Holder recently spoke with Baseball Essential as he begins his professional career with the short-season Staten Island Yankees.
Baseball Essential: Coming out of high school you went to junior college at Grossmont College, planning on becoming a two-sport athlete in both basketball and baseball. Which sport was your passion growing up and what made you decide to trade a hoops career for a spot on the diamond?
Kyle Holder: “I went to Junior college to play both basketball and baseball. Honestly I told myself that I really did not have much of a career in basketball after college and I sat down with my family to discuss career long goals and baseball caught the most attention for both myself and my family. I decided to let go of the basketball and focus completely on baseball.”
BBE: What aspects of the game of basketball helped ease the learning curve for in baseball as you began to learn the shortstop position?
KH: “I’d say footwork most importantly. Playing defense alone is tough to play in basketball and moving your feet and being light on your toes translates to baseball playing shortstop. Using the backhand and the forehand definitely help me become a better baseball player.”
BBE: This past season you were the West Coast Conference Player of the Year , batting .348, scored 45 runs scored, and slugged a robust .482 and were named a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace Award as one of the top shortstops in the NCAA. What did that season mean for you personally after transferring to the University of San Diego?
KH: “It was definitely a big year for myself. I went into the year challenging myself to do better than I did in my sophomore year and to put myself in a good position to become a professional baseball player. I guess that happened and now I am just working with the coaching staff hard everyday to become more consistent at the plate, becoming more of a hitter than just a defender. It brought up my draft stock and I am happy to be here.”
BBE: The Yankees drafted you with the 30th pick in the draft as compensation for losing David Robertson. Did you have an inclination that the Yankees would be the team to select you and how important was it for you to sign quickly?
KH: “I had a little idea going into draft day that the Yankees liked me and they were up there. I can’t describe what it feels like to be a New York Yankee. I am just excited to be on the field and play every day.”
BBE: Many have said you are the top defensive shortstop in this year’s draft and scouting Damon Oppenheimer even compared your ability at the position to Omar Vizquel. Are you surprised about the attention you have gotten this early in your professional career?
KH: “In some cases yeah and in other cases, no. It is definitely an honor to be compared to a shortstop like Omar Vizquel. Damon Oppenheimer is a great guy. I thank the world that I am a Yankee and I am excited to get out there and play.”
BBE: So much has been made, of course, about your glove work and prowess on the infield. In contrast, how would you describe yourself as a hitter and what adjustments have you made at the plate?
KH: “Obviously I am not known as a major offensive threat. I want that to change. I have been working hard all offseason the past couple of years. I am just trying to be more consistent at the plate, be able to hit to all fields, show some power and some speed. Just helping my team win at the end of the day.’
BBE: You are the first player selected in the first round since Eric Jagielo in 2013 to debut with the Staten Island Yankees. What expectations do you have about playing at this level and have you spoken to anybody in the organization who may have played here before to prepare you for the experience?
KH: “I don’t know anybody here in Staten Island yet. I have heard some great things about the coaching staff in Staten Island itself. Expectations are high. As a first round draft pick you are expected to go out there and perform and move up the ranks. I try not to think of that side of things outside of the equation much.”
Nearly one calendar year since the retirement of Derek Jeter, the Yankees have an array of options at the shortstop position at the lower levels of the farm system, anticipating advancement and developing into the players the club envisioned. From Jorge Mateo to Abiatal Avelino and Vinente Conde, the Yankees are stockpiling agile shortstops with exceptional defensive ability and budding offensive aptitude.
Kyle Holder fits the organizational mold, becoming the first shortstop drafted in the first round by the Yankees since Cito Culver in 2010. With Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew appearing to be short-term fits at the position at the big league level, the prospect of rising through the system and becoming the first homegrown shortstop since Derek Jeter is possible in a few seasons if the offensive production collaborates with advanced defensive attributes. Holder’s keen batting eye at San Diego should help enhance his on base percentage, enabling him to go deep in hitter’s counts and allow his work with the coaching staff to translate on the diamond.
Holder’s talents compare favorably to San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, who increased his on base and slugging percentages in every successive major league season, after modest offensive projections coming out of the minor leagues. If Holder can make similar gains at the plate, coupling with a glove ranked as one of the best coming out of the draft, he can eventually meet the expectations of scouts and carve out a steady career in the big leagues.