Matt Holliday’s Absence Not Inconsequential for St. Louis

We don’t talk much about Matt Holliday these days. It’s been awhile since he was one of the best players in baseball. Probably the last time you could have honestly made that claim was in 2014, when his 132 wRC+ was 28th-best in the game. However, with the news that Holliday has probably succumbed to his thumb injury for the rest of the season, I thought we would take a minute to talk about Holliday. Holliday can’t do most of the things he used to, but even after all this time can still hit.

Holliday has always had a special place in my heart because he got to Coors Field at the same time as I did. I started working for the Rockies in March of 2004, about a month before Holliday would make an unexpected major-league debut. He got the call when both Preston Wilson and Larry Walker came up lame in the first couple weeks of what would become (at the time) the bleakest moment in Rockies history. Technically, the team’s winning percentage had been worse in 1993, but in 1993 no one in the Rocky Mountain region had cared, because they had a major-league team for the first time.

That 2004 season was bad not just because of the team on the field, but because it was the year the team traded Larry Walker away — twice — getting far less in return the second time. The first time, when they tried to trade him to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, Walker had vetoed the deal. He was then sent to the Cardinals, which, in retrospect, was absolutely the right move for Walker, who would finally get to play in the World Series that fall. I’m pretty sure the Rockies would have rather had Kinsler than Chris Narveson, though. In any case, trading away Walker meant that any scant hopes the team would contend had totally and completely died. The “Todd (Helton) and the Toddlers” era had begun.

The most prominent “toddler” was Holliday. He would come along slowly, but he could always hit. As fate would have it, the season he put it all together coincided with Troy Tulowitzki‘s arrival and Todd Helton’s final good season, and the three helped lead the Rockies to their first and still only World Series berth. Holliday slugged .607 that season, and if that seems like a ridiculous number, it is. Coors Field might still be a hitting haven, but no Rockies player has slugged .600 since.

The next season, Holliday decided he wanted to steal more bases, and so he did. He set a career high with 28 successful attempts and, even more impressively, only got caught twice in the process. It was the third straight season in which he would post at least a 139 wRC+, and he was just getting started offensively. But he never tried to steal that many bases again. The following season, he would be successful in just 14 of 21 stolen-base attempts, and to his credit, mostly shut the valve on that area of his game. The next season, he would steal nine bases in 14 tries, and then would never again attempt to steal 10 bases. This season, he didn’t try to steal a single base.

The same has been true of his defense. Holliday started his pro career as a third baseman before moving to left field. And while he never had a great arm, he would grow to become a plus fielder. He would have a positive UZR for five straight seasons from 2007 to 2011, as he became a fixture at the position. But this season, he would move to first base. After all, 2011 was some time ago, and while he has not yet been a huge liability in left, the Cardinals now had better options. When he left left, he concluded quite a run in terms of playing just one position.

He would move back to left field in short order, but it wasn’t because the team realized they missed him there. From Derrick Goold at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 12:

One of them has been the power shown by Brandon Moss and the other has been the absence of Tommy Pham. The righthanded-hitting Pham was supposed to be an option in left field for a righthanded-heavy lineup that included Holliday at first. That’s the lineup that the Cardinals had on opening day against a lefty, and it’s one that Matheny would have considered for the series opener against the Angels.

No offense to Tommy Pham, but when you’re getting time in left only because a 28-year-old player with (at the time) 176 major-league plate appearances on your resume, the writing is on the wall. Holliday still started on most days, but even before he broke his thumb, he was beginning to lose time to guys like Pham, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Randal Grichuk, Brandon Moss and even Kolten Wong. And with good reason. Holliday isn’t what he once was.

The veneer has been chipped away, some of it slowly, some of it more quickly. He doesn’t field or run well anymore. His walk rate has dropped this year as pitchers have challenged him more. And yet, the good hitter who was once there is still there. He managed a 105 wRC+ this year, and it was a little better than that (109 wRC+) before he took a pitch off the face on July 21st. He would play the following night, going 0-for-7 in a 16-inning affair that, in retrospect, might not have been the wisest decision by Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

Up through that July 21st game, he had a .221 ISO. He would finish the season with a .208 ISO, which is still well above the league average. The same is true of Holliday’s HR/FB. Even though Holliday is seeing fastballs that are on average one mile per hour faster this year, he hasn’t lost his ability to square up fastballs. He’s right there with the rest of the old guys about whom you hear far more frequently.

2016 wFA & wFA/C Leaders, Age 36 and Older
Name Team PA wFA/C wFA
David Ortiz Red Sox 570 1.78 14.0
Coco Crisp – – – 471 1.43 9.2
Nelson Cruz Mariners 609 1.21 9.3
Adrian Beltre Rangers 599 1.05 7.6
Matt Holliday Cardinals 424 1.04 6.0
Ichiro Suzuki Marlins 348 0.94 4.9
Chase Utley Dodgers 528 0.74 5.9
Albert Pujols Angels 611 0.73 5.6
Victor Martinez Tigers 573 0.54 3.7
Carlos Beltran – – – 554 0.50 3.6
Jayson Werth Nationals 564 0.22 2.3
Ryan Howard Phillies 332 0.13 0.5
Mark Teixeira Yankees 403 0.05 0.3
Minimum 300 PA

Again, this isn’t to say that Holliday is on par with Adrian Beltre in all facets of the game, but it is nice to know that Holliday is still squaring up fastballs.

For a long time, Matt Holliday was one of the best players in baseball. He could run, hit and field with the best of them. But his calling card was always at the plate. It’s hard to put a 139 wRC+ for eight straight seasons, but that’s exactly what Holliday did. He might not be that guy anymore (I’m not willing to fully write him off yet) but he still has the ability to turn in a mean at-bat, and park more than his far share of baseballs over the outfield fence.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Raoul Raoul
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Raoul Raoul

When you say playing Holliday the day after he got hit in the face “might not have been the wisest decision by Cardinals manager Mike Matheny,” is that a straight line or understatement? I mean, it seems as if it’s begging for comparisons of Matheny decisions, but I don’t know if that’s a productive use of electronic ink.