Holaday Blues–Detroit Tiger Catcher Playing Third Fiddle


Though the galaxy of professional baseball players is highly diverse, at first glance the eye is drawn to its brightly shining stars.

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Those shimmering lights are the Miguel Cabreras and Max Scherzers of the world. In a sport renowned for its degree of difficulty, they have succeeded miraculously in all types of scenarios and have earned the right to negotiate astronomical contracts with teams eager to employ them.

As we peer through the glare cast by these luminaries, though, we encounter the lesser lights.

These day-to-day toilers, of course, are the majority of guys who comprise the balance of a major league roster. They are far less visible to the average fan, make considerably less money, and are infinitely more likely to receive a Rolex watch from the aforementioned stars than to present one to a fellow teammate.

Many strain throughout their careers to make an active big league roster, and once they do, are under no illusion their time in the limelight may be brief.

Which might be the case for one John Bryan Holaday, who served as the Detroit Tigers’ back-up catcher in 2014.

Holaday, who uses Bryan as his first name, was originally an infielder who transitioned to catcher while in college, like fellow Tiger backstop Alex Avila. That decision was fully validated when Holaday won the prestigious Johnny Bench Award as the nation’s top collegiate catcher in 2010.

He went on to be drafted by the Tigers in the sixth round of the MLB draft that year.

Between 2010 and 2013, Holaday spent the vast majority of his time climbing the ladder in the Tigers’ minor league system, beginning with A ball at Lakeland, then to AA in Erie, and finally onto AAA Toledo, spending a year at each stop.

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Along the way he became known primarily for his defense, as his cumulative minor league slash line during that period was a modest .243/.313/.349. Though he had brief call-ups to Detroit in 2012 and 2013, his big opportunity arose last year as a back-up to incumbent Alex Avila.

In that capacity Holaday saw significant action, catching more than a quarter of the team’s innings throughout the season. His performance on the whole was unspectacular, befitting the expectations of a fringy first-year major league back-up.

With the bat he slashed .231/.266/.276 in 156 at bats, with no home runs.

Curiously–though the right-handed hitter was widely employed against left-handed pitchers in platoon situations–Holaday struggled mightily against wrong-siders, hitting a polite .151. Alternatively, though it would be a stretch to say he had a “Holaday feast” against right-handers, he hit a respectable .301 against them.

Though Holaday’s overall offensive contributions were modest, perhaps the strongest indictment against him was the pedestrian nature of his defense.

The argument for weak hitting catchers, of course, is that the constancy of their play behind the plate somewhat offsets their quiet offensive output.

Though Holaday should not be described as a weak defender, neither can he be deemed above average, at least based on his 2014 performance.

In contrast, for all of Avila’s offensive shortcomings, he is highly regarded as a catcher. He had a pristine fielding percentage of .995 (only 5 errors) in 2014, and threw out a healthy 34% of would-be base stealers. These numbers, along with his advanced pitch-framing abilities, place Avila in the upper echelon of American League catchers.

Holaday, on the other hand, had a well below average fielding percentage of .981. Despite limited time behind the plate, he committed 7 errors, which tied for fourth highest in the league. He did grade out a cut above average in the “caught stealing” department (30%), but his overall defensive performance was undistinguished.

The Bottom Line

Not unlike the border that separates Mexico and the United States, the preferred direction of travel between Toledo and Detroit (at least for Tiger minor leaguers) is north.

Bryan Holaday made that pilgrimage in 2014.

But major league baseball is an unswerving meritocracy–it’s what you do after you pass through its portal that determines whether you get to stay.

Though Holaday did not embarrass himself throughout the 2014 campaign, manager Brad Ausmus recently implied he had dropped a notch (behind promising James McCann) on the organizational depth chart.

With a full year of major league experience now on his resume, though, all is not lost for the 27 year-old Holaday.

By sticking in the major leagues for a full year, he has proven he can competently handle a major league pitching staff and to some extent control the opponent’s running game. With a little improvement with the bat and glove, he might find continued employment in the major leagues, whether it be with the Tigers or elsewhere.

I suppose the best case scenario for him would be a trade to the Washington franchise, if only for its historical significance.

For he would immediately become the first professional baseball player ever to be declared a “National Holaday”.

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