That is a lot of money. $15 million a year that we care about—this is what Chris Carpenter will make this year—plus some amount of money that will be taken now from DeWallet, placed into DeHigh-Yield-Savings-Account, and flower eventually into $2 million more. This for seven years, which is a long time; seven years ago, Matt Holliday was putting up a .253/.313/.395 line in the Texas League, and the Cardinals' starting left fielder hit .359/.439/.667.
I've been thinking about this contract for a while—more particularly, as you'd expect, what to say about it. And I think it's worthwhile to review who Matt Holliday is, right now and, presumably, for the next two or three years, on the conservative side. Here are the good things he does:
He is a borderline Great Hitter. He doesn't quite walk enough to be a first-tier Great Hitter; his skill-set is nearer that of a really poor man's Albert Pujols, honestly, than it is most other hitters of his caliber. High average, above-average power, unlikely to lead the league in home runs any time soon.
But he's a better hitter than—to pull two names completely out of thin air, without any regard at all for anything else—Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells.
Holliday spent most of his career in Coors Field, so it's fair to take a skeptical look at the unadjusted Albert Belle numbers he put up to start his career. But by OPS+ Holliday's last four seasons are better than Soriano's Washington breakout, not to even mention Vernon Wells's two years out of four as Vernon Wells. He's not someone who has had a great season; he's someone who has great seasons.
He's at least an average left fielder. I liked Jason Bay more than most, but when the best thing that can be said about your terrible defense is that there's an easily identifiable reason for it, and it's knee surgery, defensive value over the life of a multi-year deal is a serious concern. Holliday's excellent UZR and fine Dewan numbers were... not quite corroborated by our eyes. But every metric sees him as at least average, and a few well above; given left field's low barrier for entry it seems fair, at least, to say that as a 29 year-old he was completely competent to play in the outfield.
That won't be as true when he's 36, but it's encouraging that he has farther to fall.
He's an excellent baserunner. His ZiPS projections, out yesterday, suggest he'll never steal more than ten bases again, and that depresses me; I love that crazy 28-2 stolen base line he managed in 2008. According to Bill James Online he's taken 41 bases more than an average runner would over the course of his career, a skill apart from his base-stealing exploits. That makes him, according to their Skill Assessments pane, a ninetieth percentile baserunner.
Certainly hitters with the proverbial young player's skills aren't inured from the prospect of catastrophic meltdown seasons—I have been mentioning Alfonso Soriano an awful lot. But as sluggers given long-term contracts go, Matt Holliday has skills that bode well for years 5-6-7 of the deal.
He plays a lot of games. Holliday is about to hit the wrong side of thirty, so it's a fair bet that he's passed his durability peak, but playing a lot of games is a skill that's generally undervalued unless someone is playing every last game for several years in a row. Holliday's played in at least 155 games for three years out of the last four, with one stint on the DL for hamstring issues in 2008. That's terrible news for Allen Craig, who now must attempt to convince Tony La Russa he can play third base by any means necessary, but it's good news for the Cardinals.
He is a great player, and has been a great player. Alfonso Soriano was signed coming off a career year in which he'd doubled his average walk rate to that point, added ten home runs to his career high, and taken well to a new position, all at once; Vernon Wells was signed after apparently returning to form in 2006, following two subpar years.
It's true that in both cases the player being signed was known as a great player, but the way we all knew it was different. Soriano and Wells both had impressive skills and had shown that they could translate them into big league numbers. They were, I guess, the MLB equivalent of tools hounds. Matt Holliday is a great player, and we know that not because he showed it by taking to a new position in a contract year or throwing off two years of stagnated development by repeating a big debut campaign—we know it through simple, boring repetition, through all his skills manifesting in the numbers one season after the other.
It's a long time—one year too many, probably—and the Cardinals did not receive a hometown discount, but that's what I like about this deal: If you're going to yoke yourself to somebody for seven years, it's good to make sure they can do what you're paying for for two in a row.