Believing in the Rockies’ Belief in Matt Holliday

Yesterday, Jeff Sullivan wondered aloud why the Rockies, a contending club that would benefit from some offensive help, hadn’t taken any steps to address a pretty clear weakness. Today, Colorado responded by calling up a 38-year-old outfielder who couldn’t get a major-league deal this season. If nostalgia is your thing, the Rockies’ decision to bring back Matt Holliday is a clear winner. Whatever questions Sullivan had yesterday, however, likely weren’t cleared up by this most recent move. That doesn’t mean it won’t work, of course.

From a feel-good perspective, the move is a no-brainer. Below is a WAR leaderboard for position players in Rockies franchise history.

Rockies’ WAR Leaders
Todd Helton 2247 9453 369 .316 .414 .539 132 55.1
Larry Walker 1170 4795 258 .334 .426 .618 147 44.4
Troy Tulowitzki 1048 4415 188 .299 .371 .513 124 34.1
Carlos Gonzalez 1220 4961 225 .291 .351 .518 117 25.5
Nolan Arenado 840 3538 178 .293 .348 .540 119 24.6
Matt Holliday 698 2968 128 .319 .386 .552 133 20.2
Charlie Blackmon 884 3713 133 .301 .357 .493 113 17.1
Vinny Castilla 1098 4451 239 .294 .340 .530 101 15.5
Andres Galarraga 679 2924 172 .316 .367 .577 124 13.4
Ellis Burks 520 2054 115 .306 .378 .579 127 11.0
Ubaldo Jimenez leads all pitchers with 18.1 WAR

Holliday is one of the franchise’s greatest players, arguably the team’s best hitter of all time after Larry Walker. In 2007, Holliday hit .340/.405/.607 with a 151 wRC+ and 6.9 WAR, that last figure still the best a Rockies player has recorded since Holliday was traded to the A’s ahead of the 2009 season. He finished second in the MVP voting that year, was called safe at home, and won the NLCS MVP as the franchise advanced to their only World Series appearance. Holliday would go on to capture a title with the Cardinals, but as the place where his career started, Denver clearly has some significance to the outfielder.

Whatever value Holliday’s return has emotionally for the club and its fans, it’s distinct from his value as a player attempting to aid a club in a tight playoff race. The Rockies can’t be in the business of currying favor with fans or ex-players when they are within two games of the division and just half a game out of the Wild Card. The allocation of a roster spot to Holliday only makes sense if he can contribute. As Sullivan noted yesterday, there is a pretty low bar when it comes to production that might improve the team:

To this point of the season, the Rockies rank fifth-worst in baseball in combined WAR at first base. The rest of the way, they project for the second-worst WAR at first base. And, on top of that, the Rockies also project to be third-worst in left field. The reason I bring up two positions is because Ian Desmond can play either one. See, it’s not just that the Rockies have played a lot of Desmond. It’s that they’ve played a lot of both Desmond and Gerardo Parra. Parra has started to lose playing time to David Dahl, and Desmond has started to lose playing time to Ryan McMahon, but, to just fast-forward to the point, let’s all look at a table:

Here’s the table that followed the aforementioned passage — in this case, however, with Holliday substituted for Daniel Murphy.

Player Comparison
Player 3-year wRC+ 2018 wRC+ Projected wRC+ Projected WAR
Matt Holliday 104 NA 103 0.0
Ian Desmond 89 80 90 0.1
Gerardo Parra 72 80 83 0.0
Ryan McMahon 71 74 92 0.1

Holliday is projected to mark an improvement over what the Rockies have been running out there all season. That sounds like a strange thing to say about a 38-year-old who recorded a replacement-level campaign in 2017, but let’s take a quick look back at that season to see what actually occurred. We find that Holliday ended the year with a 98 wRC+ and 19 homers in 427 plate appearances. How he arrived at that mark paints two potential pictures. In the first, Holliday is done as a productive major-league hitter. The graph below shows Holliday’s rolling wRC+ across the entire 2017 season.

Holliday started off the season well and then got worse and worse. From June 22 through the rest of the year, Holliday received 163 plate appearances, but he struck out nearly 30% of the time with a .166/.215/.278 batting line for a 25 wRC+. That’s why he only batted three times during the playoffs and probably why he didn’t get a major-league deal heading into this season. The stat line seems to suggest that Holliday was done as a productive player, but the stat line doesn’t know Holliday was sidelined by an unusual illness that sapped his strength. In mid-June, Holliday was fatigued, hit the disabled list, and was eventually diagnosed with Epstein-Barr Syndrome. It would seem that Holliday was not just really bored with baseball last summer; it turns out he had mono.

This is Holliday pre- and post-Epstein-Barr.

Matt Holliday with and without Mono in 2017
Pre-Epstein-Barr 268 .377 .529 .258 .315 140
Post-Epstein-Barr 163 .215 .278 .113 .208 25

Holliday wasn’t just holding his own for half a season last year, he was excelling. It’s fair to assume that Holliday’s skills as a hitter didn’t just disappear; as a bat-only veteran with an awful second half, however, he probably wasn’t all that appealing to clubs this past offseason. He had a better season than Jose Bautista in 2017 and is just one year older, but a minor-league deal in March or April might not have been what he was looking for. Bautista has certainly rebounded, and Holliday has had more recent success than the current Mets slugger. If Holliday’s brief stint in the minors was any indication, his hitting skills are more similar to the first-half edition of last year’s Matt Holliday and less like those exhibited by a player who struggled to finish the season.

Holliday played in just 16 minor-league games this August, but in 66 plate appearances, he’s recorded 10 walks and just nine strikeouts, suggesting that his batting eye is fine. He was able to make solid contact, producing a .345 batting average, and he wasn’t just blooping hits, as he put up a .255 ISO with five doubles and three homers. In the tiniest of sample sizes, Holliday put up a 174 wRC+ on the strength of shots like this:


And this:


Maybe last year’s first half was a mirage, and perhaps he will find major-league pitching significantly more difficult than minor-league pitching. It is really hard for 38-year-olds to find success in the majors. But maybe Holliday has a good six weeks left in him, and the bat that has been with him his entire career will shine through in Colorado. It’s exciting to see him get another shot, even if that’s just mostly nostalgia talking.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Will H.
5 years ago

SSS alert! But a 41% IFFB…