Boring is Beautiful: Matt Holliday is Probably Still Better Than This

Matt Holliday is the very definition of a beautiful, boring player. Here are Matt Holliday’s wRC+ numbers for each of the last eight seasons and dating back to his 2006 breakout campaign with the Rockies: 139, 151, 141, 141, 149, 154, 142, 148. That’s eight seasons with a spread of 12%, all of them squarely entrenched among the top 20 or so hitters in the league (and the top 10 outfielders in standard leagues).

But through his first 200 trips to the dish this season…not so much. Holliday’s .272/.368/.376 line includes just two longballs, 23 runs, and 25 runs batted in. He currently sits 50th among outfielders in standard leagues per the ESPN Player Rater. What sticks out like a sore thumb in his triple-slash is the lack of power production, as Holliday’s never slugged less than .488 in a season. His paltry .104 ISO to date checks in just south of 83 year old former Six Million Dollar Man stunt double Brian Roberts at 140th among qualified hitters, and it amounts to just a shade less than half his career number (.216). His HR/FB rate of 4.3% is about a quarter of his career number. So clearly we’re looking at a situation where bum luck will start to even out, and Holliday will soar to great heights as usual, right?

Well…yes and no.

The vast majority of Holliday’s approach and topline numbers look like they normally do: his strikeouts are up marginally from last season, but still below his career mark. His walks are up a bit. He’s not chasing more balls out of the zone, swinging too much in general, or whiffing at an alarming rate. What he is doing is making a lot more weak contact than we’re accustomed to seeing from Matt Holliday. His line drive rate is down considerably in the early going, while his groundball and infield flyball rates have both skyrocketed.

And these outcomes appear to be linked to a concerted effort by pitchers to work him differently this year. Take a look at his heat maps on pitches seen from last year and this:

2013

2014

Pitchers have been much more inclined to work him up and in on the hands in the early going, and they’ve paired that work with sinkers down in the zone. Holliday’s seen about a 3% drop in the overall number of fastballs coming his way this year, and when he does get a heater pitchers have been migrating decidedly more towards the two-seam variety (+3.5%). The results thus far have validated the approach: Holliday is getting jammed up and in, leading to weaker (and shorter) flyball contact, and he’s rolled over on a bunch more of those down-in-the-zone offerings than usual.

And there may just be something to this change in approach by pitchers. Checking Holliday’s batted ball distance, after spending the bulk of his career in the elite 295-plus foot range Holliday’s average fly ball fell to a more pedestrian (but still very good) 289-and-change mark last year. That ranked 69th among qualified hitters. This year? Down to 285.6’ out of the gate.

Now, before Holliday owners start reaching for the panic button, note that this data only obviously covers April and most of May in St. Louis for the current year. It’s been unseasonably warm in St. Louis so far this season, but it’s likely to be much warmer still in the coming months, and with warmer temperatures come balls that travel farther.

Regardless, the punchline takeaways here are that 1) the league appears to have noted last year’s slippage and started attacking Holliday differently, 2) so far it’s working insofar as his power output has been very poor, and 3) at 34 years old it could very well be that we’re starting to see the first concrete signs of age-related decline in Matt Holliday’s offensive game.

If I own Holliday I’m not moving him under pretty much any circumstance right now. He’s a good enough hitter that even if such a fade is indeed starting to occur his skills aren’t going to vanish overnight. It’s far more likely than not that he gets hot over the next few weeks and does some corrective work on his HR/FB%. That number’s not going to sit in Erick Aybar territory for the entire season. But I’d watch his batted ball distance closely through June, and keep an eye on whether he’s able to counter-adjust to the new book. If the groundball and IFFB rates start to sneak back down and the LD rate and batted ball distances creep up, it’s a good sign that he’s still got it and there’s no need to go a-sellin’. But if the present splits hang around and start looking like a new normal it may just be a sign that it’s time to consider him an available trade deadline chip in dynasty leagues this July while he’ll still fetch a hefty return.

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2 comments on “Boring is Beautiful: Matt Holliday is Probably Still Better Than This

  1. Cabby says:

    In a keeper league where I have plenty of offense and need some pitching after losing Fernandez, would you trade Holliday for Zimmermann? Both are having mediocre uears

    • Wilson Karaman says:

      I would, yes. Zimmermann has been by and large fine this year; his peripherals have been more or less right in line with the last couple years, he’s just been getting killed with an unlucky number of hits allowed (.359 BABIP, career .293). Those extra hits aren’t the product of more linedrives or harder contact in general, his velocity’s fine, FIP is exactly in line with career norms…all signs point to him performing as well as ever going forward. If you’ve got the offense to spare he makes for a solid “buy low” starter if you can get him. He’s also 28 while Holliday’s 34, so there’s a significant long-term value advantage there as well.

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