Matt Holliday: The Game’s Most Underrated Star

A player can become a poster child of sorts for his club’s offense. Edwin Encarnacion notwithstanding, I think of Jose Bautista and his pull power when I think of the Blue Jays. Mark Trumbo’s free-swinging ways embody the Diamondbacks, at least for me. Ben Zobrist hasn’t even played a game for the A’s yet, and his multipositional nature and OBP-centric skill set already makes him my go-to guy. The closest correlation between club and player, though, is an easy one for me. The Cardinals’ team-wide hit-it-hard-to-all-fields philosophy is most completely embodied by Matt Holliday.

Holliday has flown under the radar from almost the very beginning. The Rockies selected him on the 7th round of the 1998 draft out of Stillwater HS in Oklahoma, and paid him a healthy overslot bonus to keep him, a highly recruited quarterback, from pursuing a football career. He was good but not great as a minor leaguer, batting .276-.353-.427 and hitting only 65 homers in 2638 plate appearances.

Each season, I compile an ordered list of top minor league position player prospects based on OBP and SLG relative to league and level, adjusted for age. Traditional scouting methods are then used to tweak the order. Holliday qualified for this list in the first four full seasons of his minor league career, ranking #74, #94, #45 and #145 from 1999 through 2002, which would normally mark a player as a fairly sure future major leaguer. However, Holliday’s lowest rank came in the last of the four seasons, and his subpar, unranked 2003 performance in his second Double-A season created some concerns. The Rockies were undeterred, and he won the starting major league left field job by mid-April 2004.

Since then, Holliday has been a model of consistency, taking his game to another level after fully tapping into his power potential in 2006 at age 26. He finished 2nd in the 2007 MVP Award voting with a Coors-aided .340-.405-.607 tour de force. Once you adjust for context, however, Holliday has basically been the same player ever since, with his OPS+ never falling below 137 from 2006-13. Very quietly, he has closed to within hailing distance of various Hall Of Fame candidacy tracking metrics, actually exceeding the mark of an average inductee in Baseball Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor.

His counting numbers are nowhere near what the mainstream media might consider Hall-worthy, for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that he moved on from Coors Field midway through the 2009 season, when he was dealt to Oakland. After that season, he moved on to a second pitchers’ park in St. Louis, where he has remained ever since.

The second reason is a stealthy one, which unfortunately tends to take many discussion-worthy players like Bobby Abreu and Brian Giles, to name two, out of the mix. Holliday gets a solid bit of his offensive value from the base on balls. Though he has a very strong .308-.385-.523 career line and 136 OPS+, he doesn’t get Hall attention because he’s got “only” 1837 hits through his age 34 season, and while he’s very, very good at everything, he hasn’t been truly great in any of the counting stat categories.

Now mind you, I’m not saying that Holliday is deserving as we speak, or even will be once his career wraps. He has 48.4 WAR on his resume, and showed the first true signs of decline last season. What I am saying, is that in these days of swinging for pull power at all costs, the base on balls and the opposite field be damned, Matt Holliday is the antidote, the model whom young hitters with power potential should emulate. He is not a power hitter; he is a hitter with power, or as I sometimes say, a hit-before-power, not a power-before-hit guy.

To get a better feel of Holliday as a hitter, let’s peel back the layers and look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency information:

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FREQ – 2014
Holliday % REL PCT
K 15.0% 80 24
BB 11.1% 141 85
POP 7.4% 103 54
FLY 29.5% 103 56
LD 19.5% 90 22
GB 43.5% 102 61

Holliday forms a strong base to his offensive portfolio with well above average K and BB rates, with percentile ranks of 24 and 85, respectively. His K rate has always been a strength, but his 2014 percentile rank represents his career best. His BB rate percentile rank has fluctuated in a very narrow band between 84 and 87 over the last for seasons, and hasn’t fallen below 71 since 2008. Strength in these areas gives Holliday plenty of margin for error with regard to BIP authority.

Holliday has always posted very acceptable popup rates for a power hitter; his just above average popup percentile rank of 56 is right in line with career norms. His line drive percentile rank of 22 was his lowest since 2008; he’s averaged 48 in this category over the past seven seasons, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least a slight uptick this season. He has always posted fairly neutral fly and ground ball rates, as well; none of the extremes that place hard constraints on his average or power upsides.

For any hitter, especially one with power, the really important stuff is in the production by BIP type data, where we get a better feel for a hitter’s batted-ball authority. We can proceed into that any data, however, with the knowledge that Holliday lacks any of the red or even orange frequency flags that eventually trip up most power hitters:

PROD – 2014
Holliday AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.259 0.637 85 151
LD 0.697 1.146 137 129
GB 0.281 0.312 133 126
ALL BIP 0.330 0.536 110 128
ALL PA 0.272 0.356 0.442 130 146

Holliday’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Holliday’s overall numbers took a hit last year due to a fairly significant decline in his fly ball production. He batted .259 AVG-.637 SLG on fly balls last season, for a below MLB average 85 REL PRD. A number of factors conspired against him with regard to fly ball production; his ballpark was chief among them, but on top of that, Holliday had plain bad luck on fly balls. After adjustment for context, his ADJ PRD in the air is a well above MLB average 151. While this makes his relatively meager production in the air a bit less of a concern, his 2014 ADJ PRD was still down fairly sharply from 206 in 2013.

Holliday had well above league average actual production on liners and grounders (137 and 133 REL PRD), with both slightly downgraded to ADJ PRDs of 129 and 126 for context. Bottom line, he hits all types of batted balls harder than the MLB average; the liner figure is of particular note, as a 129 line drive ADJ PRD almost always qualifies as a top five mark in any league, in any year. Add all of the BIP types together, and Holliday had an overall 110 REL PRD and 128 ADJ PRD. Add back the K’s and BB’s, and you have a 130 REL PRD, 146 ADJ PRD guy. Basically, just about the same guy he’s been for the better part of a decade, with the downgrade in fly ball authority causing a drop from his 2013 overall ADJ PRD of 154.

Here’s where we get back to the all-fields style of hitting that has served Holliday and the vast majority of the Cards well in recent seasons. His pull ratios in the air, on a line and on the ground were 0.75, 1.73 and 2.56, respectively, well below the MLB averages for righthanded hitters, even more so for power-oriented bats. This means that Holliday can hit just about any pitch hard to any field, and just as importantly, never has to worry about an infield overshift.

There is one problem, however, and it’s that pesky decline in fly ball authority from 2013 to 2014. When you hit the ball in the air to the middle of the field as often as Holliday does, you need to hit it much harder than a more pull-oriented hitter might to accumulate those homers and doubles to which Cards’ fans have grown accustomed. The time has come for Holliday to focus on selectively pulling the ball in the air more so than he has in the past. When lesser hitters attempt to do so, their grounder pull rates spike along with the fly ball pull rate, and hello, overshift. I call this “harvesting”, and it can lead to short-term success, but also hasten the end of a career, especially for one of those “power before hit” guys.

Again, Holliday is a “hit before power” guy, and he can pull, pun intended, this off. There are absolutely no red flags in his offensive profile, but if he can intentionally invite an orange one into the mix, there might still be some slugging percentages over .500 in his future. Yes, the defensive component of his game has backslid a bit in recent seasons, but Matt Holliday is still capable of reaching the production levels that have become second nature to him over the past decade. If he wants to, he can be a reasonably productive DH as late as his 40th birthday.





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Jim S.
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Jim S.

Zobrist homered in his first AB for Oakland last night. He doubled later.