One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Matt Holliday experience—about his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and his side gig as the Cardinals fanbase's official clutchness object lesson—is that he should be exactly the kind of player Cardinals fans overrate. He hits for less power than you'd expect, and more line drives; he swings and runs like he's perpetually at max effort; off the field he's either quiet, in the no-news-is-good-news sense of the word, or in the news for helping out some younger, more exciting player.
In the comments of one of our Stan Musial posts this week someone suggested Holliday as the closest thing going to Musial on the 2013 Cardinals, and it kind of made sense to me, even though he (like anybody else) can't measure up. (If Carlos Beltran had arrived earlier I think he might also half-fit the bill—his Twitter is like a weirdly low-key parody account of a polite, charming baseball player.)
Eventually, I think, Holliday's reputation will finally catch up to his talent and his production; Cardinals fans might warm to his hard-headedness once it becomes more obvious that his late-season struggles had more to do with a series of debilitating injuries he probably shouldn't have played through than his mental fortitude.
It could also just take time. Barring a trade, Holliday will end his current contract having been at the center of the Cardinals' offense for seven-and-a-half years; that's about as long as Jim Edmonds was around. At that point he won't be the highly paid free agent who had the misfortune of misplaying a baseball while Ryan Franklin was a closer—he'll just be a longtime Cardinal.
So when Holliday's career ends, and his legacy is left to people who didn't have to fight the clutch wars while they were happening, what will it look like? How will he be remembered?
As we discussed last month, the all-time Cardinals leaderboards are an extremely inhospitable place to be, especially if you didn't become a Cardinal until halfway through your age-29 season. Holliday is presently the Cardinals' active leader in home runs... with 90. That's 22nd in team history, six behind J.D. Drew.
Another 25-homer season will put Holliday in 16th place, between George Hendrick (122) and Scott Rolen (111.) The price of entry in the Top 10 is Johnny Mize's 158, and fifth place belongs to noted forgotten hero Ray Lankford, at 228.
That's the problem with being such a well-rounded slugger; fans might appreciate Holliday's work in the moment, but all those line drives don't add up so nicely into a round, career number. (He's all the way back in 48th place in doubles, with 133.) RBI, if you like that sort of thing? 47th, with 335. rWAR, if you like that sort of thing? He's a season outside the Top 40 position players, again just behind J.D. Drew.
He's got four seasons left (on his current contract) to add to these numbers, but even, say, 400 more RBI would leave him just outside the Top 10, behind Lou Brock. Another 100 home runs leaves him ahead of Mize and company but behind Lankford.
If Holliday is going to become a Cardinals legend, then, it won't be because his name is always showing up on the all-time lists they cycle through on Busch Stadium's videoboard. (That was how I learned most of my Cardinals history growing up.)
Matt Holliday's first chance to be the face of the franchise was foiled by Yadier Molina, heading into a long-term contract of his own, staking a semi-permanent claim to the role. That's the thing about Matt Holliday: He doesn't look quite like a star in any one season, unless you're looking closely. (The only "black ink" he's ever earned came in one year at Coors Field, when he won the batting title and led the NL in hits, doubles, and RBI.)
Sticking around in Colorado he might have grown into Mr. Rockie (Rocky?), although it's tough competing with Todd Helton. But in St. Louis he's left to deal with three superstars in recent memory. Eight of the top 10 seasons for Cardinals hitters since 2000, by rWAR, belong to Albert Pujols; Scott Rolen has the third-best, and Jim Edmonds has 10, 12, 14, and 15. You have to pass Molina's 2012 season (11th place) and Pujols's rookie year (13) before you get to Matt Holliday's 2010 season. (Of course Holliday was healthy all year the season the Cardinals missed the playoffs.)
A huge second-half after a big trade and three consecutive All-Star seasons might get you credit somewhere, but they don't go very far in St. Louis.
Holliday has a World Series win under his belt already, but it will be a minor shock if anybody, 20 years from now, remembers the 2011 postseason run as anything other than that time David Freese and Chris Carpenter did those things. Holliday's .158 batting average against the Rangers didn't much help matters, and his .435 batting average in the NLCS somehow ended up third on the team.
But if Holliday's going to end up as one of those guys who comes back to Busch after he retires and gets a few standing ovations a year, he's going to have to push past the Freeses and Kozmas and Carpenters, one of these years, and actually complete that task we joke about every time he has a high-leverage at-bat: He's going to have to Do a Narrative Thing.
If he doesn't—well, I'm not sure how we'll remember Matt Holliday. This, of course, has always been the endearing and problematic thing about him: He's a superstar who is not quite a superstar. He puts up big numbers but it's never one big number; he leads the team, but he's only the face of it if you're looking in two or three-year increments; he signed a huge contract that doesn't really look like a huge contract anymore.
If I had to guess, we might remember Holliday, in the future, for how hard he is to remember. We'll wonder how the 2012 Cardinals coped without Pujols, or how the 2011 Cardinals got to the postseason in the first place, and after Beltran and Berkman and Molina come to mind we'll finally remember the other piece: Matt Holliday having a Matt Holliday season.