As far as very good Major League outfielders go, Matt Holliday is probably among the most anonymous. Despite owning a career 139 wRC+ and signing a $120 million dollar contract in 2010, he’s probably best known for getting hit in the beans that one time and not touching home plate with the winning run that other time.
But year after year, Holliday methodically bangs out .300/.390/.500 seasons. He hits enough home runs to be a power threat but not enough to elicit “oohs” and/or “ahhhs” from visiting fans. He looks enough like The Thing to keep from holding the casual fan’s gaze for too long. He just sort of exists, a very productive presence on the outside of the collective unconscious.
In his own way, Holliday is the physical embodiment of the team he plays for, the St. Louis Cardinals. Unsettlingly consistent, easy to overlook but difficult to beat, and extremely annoying for opposing fans and players. Like the villain in a really boring horror film.
While Holliday wraps up another 4 WAR season, it hasn’t come without some struggle. Holliday started slowly in 2014, going the entire month of May without hitting a home run and carrying a sub-.400 slugging percentage into the All Star break. Our own Chris Cwik looked at his inability to pull the ball with authority, dragging down his power numbers and bringing about “decline” questions.
Once the second half began, Holliday returned to form, pulling the ball effectively once again and reaching his requisite 20 homer plateau. Not coincidentally, the Cardinals pulled out of their midseason swoon and began storming to the top of the NL Central standings.
The Cardinals resumed their well-rehearsed march to the top of the division as Holliday found his stroke. He was again the Matt Holliday we all know and willfully ignore – an above-average hitter without light tower power. Sounds like the Cardinals, who led the National League in runs scored last season despite hitting just 125 home runs, lower than all but two NL clubs.
In 2014, the Cardinals offense is one of the weakest in baseball. They walk and strikeout at nearly identical rates to 2013, but their already below-average power dropped lower. Their situational dominance from a year ago is gone. Where once there rallies built on a parade of singles, the Cardinals spent much of 2014 wondering how they’d ever score.
And yet, thanks to their defense and run prevention, they’re playoff bound once again. Their magic number to clinch the division is three, with the Pirates in action tonight trying to make the final weekend of the season really matter.
But they didn’t get into motion until Holliday rediscovered his power stroke in the second half. His ISO by month tells a story. .132 in April, then .078, .156, .244, .229, .202 in the subsequent intervals. He pulled the ball more, especially the soft stuff, but he is producing in more of a “gap to gap” fashion, hitting home runs and extra base hits to the vast power alleys of Busch Stadium. A “professional hitter” honing his craft as opposing pitchers attempt to overwhelm him with more heat.
With only Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta serving as a legit power threats in their everyday lineup, the Cards offense missed Holliday’s extra base pop. But they missed his most “Cardinals” of traits more than anything – his ability to deliver situationally.
Like the maddening Cardinals of 2013, Holliday produces with runners in scoring better at a high rate. Skill or otherwise, it helps a team win more games than it should, and St. Louis is outperforming most Pythag and BaseRuns projected win total by six games. This is the REAL Cardinals Way.
Despite ranking 27th among qualified hitters by wRC+, Holliday ranks sixth by win probability added and ninth by RE24. He sports a healthy 186 wRC+ in high leverage situations, producing nine extra base hits in 76 high leverage plate appearances. It’s the Cardinals magic that we all acknowledge but refuse, despite what they say about emphasizing it as a skill, to believe is real.
When not coming up in the biggest situations, Holliday leads the pack of very poor base runners sporting birds on a bat across their chest. The Cards are a plodding group and Holliday is no different. By speed score they’re second worst, by Ultimate Base Running they’re 25th. Holliday was never a burner on the bases but his speed and base running rank below-average. Theirs is a offense predicated on rallies and stringing hits together. It’s easy to score after three straight line drive singles, no matter how slow you are.
The one area Holliday diverts from his teammates is in the field. Holliday has a reputation as an outfielder butcher. It isn’t exactly the case, as he could charitably be classed as largely sure-handed without much in the way of range or a throwing arm. By DRS and UZR, he’s neutral in the field this season, standing in stark opposition to the larger three-year trend.
His Cardinals teammates, on the other hand, look like standouts in run prevention in 2014. Adding Peter Bourjos is a great way to make any defense look better, as does removing Allen Craig from the mix. Moving Matt Carpenter back to third base and installing Kolten Wong (et al) at second nets out as a positive, with the addition of Peralta the biggest difference maker for St. Louis. They ranks first by Defensive Runs Saved and sixth by UZR. Holliday doesn’t help out much in this regard but it looks as though, for now, he isn’t hurting them either.
St. Louis turned into a run prevention team that produces in the clutch (as they ever had) that is but a few steps (and a few Pirates) from claiming another NL Central crown. It doesn’t have to make sense and it isn’t especially pleasant for a large section of fans who loathe the Cardinals prolonged cycle of success.
In the round, boulder-like face of Matt Holliday, the Cardinals have their avatar. A maddening mix that brushes up against great with alarming ease and worrying silence. Another 4 WAR season for him and another playoff berth for them. Same as it ever was.