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Friday, August 3, 2012

Matt Holliday: Under-Appreciated Superstar

If someone came up to you in the streets and asked you "How good has Matt Holliday been this year?", what would your response be?

I'm kind of hoping it would be some sort of confusion, at least. That would be the normal response, I would think. Maybe some sort of unwariness. Why are random people on the street asking you about Matt Holliday? But how about if I asked you that now, where it's not totally unexpected? I mean, he's good at least. He made the All-Star Game (although he was an injury replacement). I put him on the All-Star roster without using injury replacements, so that should move him up a few notches.

Would you believe he's one of the top 10 players in the Majors this year? Fangraphs credits him with 4.9 Wins Above Replacement, seventh in the pros (behind Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, David Wright, Ryan Braun, Carlos Ruiz, and Robinson Cano). Baseball-Reference's version has him seventh as well, with 4.7 (tied with Braun and behind Trout, McCutchen, Wright, Cano, Justin Verlander, and Jordan Zimmermann). There's a very strong argument that he's been one of the top five players in the NL. Maybe even as high as top three. 

And yet, he's gotten next-to-no exposure. As Craig Calcaterra noted on Wednesday, "He’s gonna hit 30 home runs and drive in 110 and most people won’t bat an eye." And then, he went and hit 2 home runs in a 3-4, 5 RBI game that night. Somehow, he's found a way to deflect all attention from himself, despite his performance. I mean, his own manager even snubbed him from the All-Star Team at first! And in favor of a clearly worse player from a rival team, at that! I even noticed this trend the other day-his entire career has been rather underrated.

It's pretty obvious how he's been this valuable: he's been absolutely crushing the baseball. He's fifth in the NL with 21 home runs, leads the league in RBI with 75, sixth in average with .325, fourth in OBP with .408, and sixth in slugging percentage with .561. His 161 OPS+ (meaning his OPS is 61% better than league average, accounting for home field) is fith in the NL, while his 164 weighted Runs Created (like OPS+, but with OBP weighted more to account for scoring) is fourth. So, yeah; he's been a good hitter. On top of that, he's a slightly above average base runner and a more or less average fielder (going by Fangraphs).

Really, that’s the story of his entire career. He’s always hit; he has a career 139 OPS+ and a career 141 wRC+. Most defensive metrics (for example, Total Zone and Ultimate Zone Rating) agree that he’s at least not bad at fielding, maybe even good. He’s also been a surprisingly smart baserunner, to make up for his lack of speed (Fangraphs credits him with 16 career runs added just through running). Add it up, and in nine seasons, he’s at 44.6 Fangraphs WAR and 36.6 B-R WAR. That’s starting to move into borderline-Hall of Fame territory. And yet, I feel like not many people realize just how good he’s been.

I remember when he resigned with the Cardinals, how most people (myself included) thought it would be a vast overpay. But Holliday’s aged more gracefully than anyone imagined, to the point where he might actually provide surplus value on the contract. Fangraphs estimates he’s been worth $71.5 million since 2010, just based on the free agent going-rate for Wins Above Replacement. That leaves just $48.5 million unaccounted for, with four-plus seasons to get there. Given the current approximation of 1 Win equalling $5 million on the open market, that means he needs to be worth about 9.7 WAR through 2016, or basically a league average-starter for each season that’s left. And that’s even before accounting for any possible inflation in WAR costs.

Heck, just the Rest-of-Season projection (ZiPS (R)) is predicting he’ll end the year with 6.7 WAR. That would leave him with just under 8 WAR the rest of the way. That’s more than accomplishable. And he’s only 32. That isn’t exactly young in baseball terms, but it isn’t unheard of for players to be productive into their mid-30s. I would think a player having an MVP-type age-32 year would at least be decent for most of ages 33 to 36.*

*Just did a quick search I did; players in history and their OPS+ at 32. Players close to Holliday (161): Mike Schmidt (161 in 1982), Larry Walker (164 in 1999), Willie Stargell (164 in 1972), Ted Williams (164 in 1951), Frank Thomas (163 in 2000), Jeff Kent (162 in 2000), Lance Berkman (160 in 2008), Jim Edmonds (158 in 2002), Ken Singleton (155 in 1979), Jim Thome (154 in 2003), Dave Winfield (154 in 1984) Frank Robinson (153 in 1968), Manny Ramirez (152 in 2004), Jeff Bagwell (152 in 2000). Does that guarantee Holliday will be as good as them the next few year? Of course not. But it does give me reasons to be optimistic about his eventual decline.


Why exactly is Holliday underrated, though? I don’t really understand. Usually people love slugging corner outfielders who can field and run and play the game right and all of that. Part of it may be that he isn’t particularly flashy or out spoken. Maybe some of it is that he got a bit of a late start (his first full year came at 24). Some of it might be that he was overshadowed by franchise players (Todd Helton in Colorado, Albert Pujols in St. Louis). Maybe some of it is that he isn’t yet associated with one team (he’s spent about equal time with the Rockies and Cardinals). Maybe some of it is that he hasn’t stood out for a particular moment, like a strong post-season run. There’s this play, but that’s about it.* Maybe people were eager to discount him after playing in Colorado, and took his short time in Oakland as proof that he wasn’t good (although he’s since played well in Busch Stadium, a neutral/slight pitchers’ park). I have a bunch of theories, but no real answers. Maybe someone else has some ideas?

*And really, that’s not even totally fair to him. There were still two outs in the inning, and the Cardinals still had the lead. Even then, I would think that he’s redeemed himself, between last year’s run and his career postseason batting line of .278/.361/.500.

I’m sure people realized that Matt Holliday has been good. I mean, I know I did, at least. But I didn’t realize just how good he’s been, especially over his entire career. The more I’m looking at his overall body of work, the more I’m realizing that the buzz around him just doesn’t seem to match what he’s accomplished.

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