Matt Holliday defies age-related decline

Age is just a number...that represents how many years you've been alive

The Cardinals' leftfielder has continued to produce at very high levels despite advancing in age. Matt Holliday's Age-31 to Age-33 seasons compare favorably with some all-time greats who continued to perform well into their mid-30s.

Halfway through last season, questions arose whether the Cardinals had seen the best of Matt Holliday and if he had finally succumbed to an age-related decline that strikes all players. In the first half of 2013, Holliday was hitting just .268/.350/.448, all below his career averages. His 125 wRC+ showed he was still a capable hitter, but not up to his prior elite level. On June 24, 2013, Bernie Miklasz noted Holliday had been hit by a bit of bad luck and was still a good hitter, but said,

I think it's fair to say he's an increasingly vulnerable hitter, and we'll be watching closely to see if he can make adjustments, especially on those inside pitches. As of now, Holliday's production in the No. 3 hole isn't what the team requires there.

Bernie's concerns were well-founded. At age 33, the surprise was not that Holliday's statistics were dropping, but that he had not entered his decline phase several years earlier. Holliday's performance in the second half showed the dangers of reaching conclusions after just one half-season of data (not saying Bernie did that, his piece looks at many different factors and left the ultimate conclusion unknown). Holliday put up a second-half line of .348/.442/.552 good for a wOBA of .431 and wRC+ of 182. Only Mike Trout (187) and Jayson Werth (186) had second-half wRC+ better than Holliday's.

By combining a decent first half with an incredible second half, Holliday put up numbers that Ben said Holliday's 2013 performance, "might be more impressive than his 2007," when Holliday was an MVP candidate. When looking at Holliday's wRC+ over the years, his consistency has been excellent.

Holliday has exceeded 140 in wRC+ for seven consecutive seasons. Given what we know about typical hitter decline, Holliday has aged very well. Over at Fangraphs, Tony Blengino provided one theory for why Holliday has continued to hit well. Blengino's argument is that as hitter's age, they tend to try to pull the ball more in order to maintain power. When they become pull-conscious, their overall numbers take a bit of a dip. They can still be effective hitters, but becoming pull-conscious can signal an upcoming decline.

The guys who effectively cover the field with authority do control the dialogue. One guy who has quietly done so for quite some time is Matt Holliday. His pull ratios for all types of batted balls are below the league average, and he hit more fly balls to the opposite field than he pulled in 2013. He also happens to be in decline, though it's very difficult to tell from his results.

While Holliday is still likely to decline in 2014 in his Age-34 season (ZiPS, Oliver, and Steamer all project wRC+ between 134 and 140), his consistency thus far has defied normal aging curves. According to recent work by Jeff Zimmerman at Fangraphs, hitter wRC+ are stable through age 26 or 27, then decline at roughly five points per year through age 33. Here is a graph showing Holliday's wRC+ with the wRC+ that would normally be expected due to age-related decline.

Given the way Holliday started his career, it is fair to expect that Holliday would still be a good hitter at this age, but what Holliday has done puts him among some of the greats of baseball. Among all outfielders over the past 50 years, Holliday's wRC+ of 148 from ages 31-33 is 20th overall. To look at comparable hitters, I took hitters with wRC+ of between 140 and 160 during ages 31-33 who also were within ten points of Matt Holliday's 148 wRC+ in his Age-33 season. There were seven hitters. Here are their stats from ages 31-33.

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+

Roberto Clemente 1879 0.323 0.372 0.526 0.39 153

Jim Edmonds 1715 0.297 0.406 0.58 0.412 153

Gary Sheffield 1809 0.314 0.42 0.58 0.423 159

Bernie Williams 1948 0.317 0.401 0.526 0.395 142

Ken Singleton 1976 0.297 0.403 0.495 0.399 152

Manny Ramirez 1992 0.309 0.404 0.598 0.416 155

Reggie Jackson 1724 0.285 0.371 0.524 0.393 147

Average 1863 0.310 0.400 0.550 0.400 152

Matt Holliday 1806 0.297 0.385 0.503 0.385 148

While most of Holliday's individual statistics do not quite match up, his wRC+ which takes into context both era and park factors, match up very well with the above players. Here is a graph with the average wRC+ for these players and Holliday from ages 30-33 as well as the continued averages for the rest of the players through age 37.

The group had another excellent year at age 34, followed by two more good years at ages 35-36 before finally falling to merely average hitters at age 37. Individually, the group performed at a high level. Of the seven players above, only Bernie Williams had a wRC+ under 120 from ages 34-36 at 102. Ken Singleton was next lowest with a solid 122. The other five players all maintained wRC+ between 140 and 160. The Cardinals have Matt Holliday locked up through his Age-36 season. Expecting an age-related decline is perfectly reasonable for Holliday, but thus far, he has shown little signs of aging as a hitter.

Players who have defied their aging curves in their early thirties have often continued to perform very well, providing hope that Holliday will continue to hit near his current level. Deteriorating defense could turn Holliday's near five-win seasons into four or three-win seasons in the coming years, but as long as he continues to hit, Holliday will be of great value to the Cardinals and one of the better free-agent mega-contracts of all time.

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