Matt Holliday: Still Aging Gracefully?

I wanted to go with a title that likened Matt Holliday to the smokin’ Diane Lane. But I don’t really look at Holliday the way I do the smokin’ Diane Lane.

Anyway, that Holliday ended up as the 18th-ranked outfielder in Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings for the position might surprise some fantasy baseball players. The St. Louis Cardinals’ regular left fielder hit .272 with 20 home runs and four stolen bases in 667 plate appearances. OK, not bad, those marks seem good enough to place him 18th. But he hit a mere six home runs in 339 at-bats (400 PAs) prior to the All-Star break, so he appeared to be on course to fall short of 20 bombs for the first time since 2005, his second year in the majors. It might just surprise some folks to find out that he recovered so well.

Holliday’s 2014 campaign came with a bit of a letdown in terms of power production. He posted career worsts in ISO (.169), SLG (.441), and HR/FB (11.1%), in large part because of his mere total of 20 home runs. The reliable fantasy star’s power was in slow decline, but this year’s marks represent a bit swifter of a fall.

Do we fade Holliday in 2015, then? Enjoy it while you had it? Don’t go back for any more? The guy will be 35 next year. At that age, generally, things don’t get better, and they have been getting worse for a while. Perhaps he just did us quite a solid: He sent us a clear signal that the end is nigh, but he put up really good fantasy numbers, relatively, in the process. After all, he needed 14 home runs and a .234 ISO after the break just to arrive at his final line. Who’s comfortable relying on that kind of rebound in order for him to earn his dough?

We run into a bit of danger if we just cast him aside, of course. Holliday had that shiny second half just as much as he did that dull first one. That second half was kind of crazy compared to his first half, but in the context of his career performance and arc, it’s not at all crazy.

What was Holliday’s issue, then? Chris Cwik wrote in June of Holliday’s problems producing pull power. I’m not often willing to declare a player’s problem mostly a function of foul fortune. What’s the explanation, if not, though? Health? He dealt with low back pain and soreness in his left knee at times this season, but neither is documented until June or later. It could be undocumented, though. He’s been known to play an assortment of ailments – some that have visibly affected his performance, some that haven’t. Perhaps the pull problem was partly a product of the way the opposition pitched to him, as Drew Fairservice discussed in September. Or, perhaps it was just unusual luck.

Not much about changed about Holliday, on the whole.

Matt Holliday batted ball distance

  • Much of his power lately has been to center field, as well as to the pull side. (In the early portion of his career, he produced power to the opposite field, too.)

Matt Holliday batted ball angle

We can definitively say that Holliday has lost most of his ability to go the other way with power.

Matt Holliday y2y ISO by location

He’s hit for more of it to center than to left in the last couple of years, it’s worth noting, however. To have only pull power is a trait we tend to associate with old players – I did, anyway – and that’s not exactly what we’re seeing here. Bill Petti’s research on how batted-ball distance ages suggests that RHBs don’t necessarily experience it that way, by direction, though. Basically, Holliday has done what we could have expected, based on that knowledge, but not quite in the way we – or at least I – expected.

But it’d be inaccurate to say that Holliday has lost significant power. It’s not uncommon for Holliday to be among the leaders in homer and fly-ball distance. This season, though, he led the league in average home run distance, even though he had a “down year.” It takes more power to hit one out to center than to the pull side, naturally, and he hit fewer of them, so the sample is comprised of greater distances. But, again, he hit for plenty of power. It just happened to be to center.

Holliday’s power has declined, but it’s still gradual, slight. The numbers might be a little misleading if we go strictly by 2014’s rates. How the lost power translates statistically is, in the end, why we’re here, however. He may be unlikely to recover much of the pull power he used to exhibit, and that’s a probable problem for the homer total, if that’s how it works. Rumor has it that center field is where, generally, fences are farthest from home plate. It doesn’t help that Busch Stadium has a bottom-10 park factor for home runs, if his owners want more of those, but it might if they want him to win the Golden Sledgehammer again. Still, we shouldn’t assume that more decline in the power numbers is the next step, like it’s on a curve.

That’s where there could be some room for overreaction next fantasy draft season. How does the crowd react to Holliday’s dip in power numbers, given his age? He hasn’t lost much, and in context – the decline of offense in general – he’s still, more than likely, a quality performer. His Steamer projection (.277/.365/.455 and 20 HR in 613 PA) is pretty fair, I think. The AVG could even rebound a bit more, but we’re pretty close to the ceiling in terms of dingers. The PT is a tad conservative but rational given his age. Remove the emergency appendectomy in 2011 and he’s been incredibly dependable.

The end isn’t nigh; it’s just nigh-er. But that’s always true. If Holliday is discounted because the crowd is expecting a more precipitous drop-off, then they’ll create what I’d probably see as an attractive buying opportunity of an otherwise reliable asset. If the crowd, on the other hand, is swayed to believe that very slow decline is still how his outcomes will be defined, then a there’s more of a chance that he’ll be bought at a loss, but at least it’s unlikely that it’ll be much of one. The signs overall point to more of the same. You know what you’re getting, and you get what you pay for, and that has a little value, too. Still aging gracefully.

Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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9 years ago

The last two years, I’ve drafted Holliday and traded him when things didn’t look good. Always seems to fall further than he should, but I forget that players usually hit projections and ship him off. One year he’ll drop to old-man numbers, but this year, if I get him, I’m hanging on.