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'Tis the Season to Celebrate Holliday

"Thank goodness we still have Holliday."

So read the text message I received from a good friend and fellow Cardinals fan. Over a thirty-minute span I received several that formed what was essentially a stream-of-consciousness rationalization of Pujols leaving and assessment of the club's 2012 chances (as they stood at that moment, prior to any free agent signings). The sentiment in the above-quoted final text was somewhat surprising coming from him.

Like many St. Louis baseball diehards, my friend spit invective in the same medium when Matt Holliday dropped a fly ball at Chavez Ravine during the 2009 NLDS--a drop that started a Dodgers rally which was extended on three occasions by closer Ryan Franklin before allowing the coup de gråce off the bat of the .232-hitting Mark Loretta. Loney reaching on Holliday's error was not even a top five play in the game in terms of WPA. The walk to Casey Blake, Ronnie Belliard single, passed ball allowed by Yadier Molina with Russell Martin batting, walk to Martin, and Loretta single seem to have never happened in the collective consciousness of the Cardinals fandom; all that remains is the Holliday error.

That ninth-inning error also seems to have wiped clean any memory of Holliday's second-inning homer that put the Redbirds up 1-0 and provided the difference in what was a 2-1 game entering that fateful final frame. The amnesia induced by Holliday's dropped fliner also erased any remembrance of Chris Carpenter laboring through a mere five innings in Game 1 and posting a line that included nine hits allowed, four walks issued, and four earned runs allowed. Forgotten as well is the fact that the Cardinals as a lineup only managed to plate three of the 16 runners they put on base in that opening game of the NLDS. As for Game 3, well, that's best left in the amnesiatic haze of never was.

That Holliday's drop in left field of that game still dogs him this day is unfortunate. Since coming to the Cardinals via trade in 2009, Holliday has been an integral part of two postseason teams and a World Series champion. Whether one goes by more traditional stats or new advanced metrics, all Holliday has done as a Cardinal is hit and produce runs at a truly elite level. In addition to his numbers, Holliday is one of the grittiest players I've seen play the game and is a clubhouse leader.

Matt Holliday has a career batting average (BA) of .315. In 2011, his .296 BA was the lowest since his rookie season but still ranked thirty-third in the big leagues out of those who qualified for the batting title. More importantly, his .388 on-base percentage (OBP) tied for eleventh in all of baseball. Holliday's .525 slugging percentage (SLG) tied him with new teammate Carlos Beltran for twentieth. His combined OBP Plus SLG (OPS) of .912 ranked twelfth in the major leagues in 2011--ahead of former teammate Pujols (.906) and just ahead of Beltran (.910). Using Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), the story is the same: Holliday's .393 wOBA ranks twelfth--behind the likes of Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, and Adrian Gonzalez and ahead of players such as Josh Hamilton, Pujols, Carlos Gonzalez, Adrian Beltre, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Stanton.

Holliday's excellent 2011 was no fluke. It is just another elite offensive season in a career striking in its consistently fantastic offensive production levels. Holliday has never had a below-average offensive season as a big leaguer and been head-and-shoulders above average from his third season through 2011. In his rookie season, he posted an OPS+ of 104. In subsequent seasons, his OPS+ levels have been 114, 137, 150, 138, 139, 139, 149, and 153. Despite being hindered by injuries in 2011, it was his best season relative to the rest of the league. The same is true using wOBA+. Even though Statcorner's wOBA+ only goes back to 2007, Holliday's 2010 and 2011 are career bests at 127 and 128 respectively. This despite Holliday having an unlucky 2011. Holliday's wOBAr was .426 when regressing for batted-ball levels despite it calculating out at .394 based on results.

Combined with Holliday's lumbering style of outfield patrol, the NLDS error has also unfairly fueled a persistent misconception amongst Cardinals fans that Holliday is not a good defender. Holliday ranks as perfectly average or above average in the big three fielding metrics. The following chart provides Holliday's Total Zone, UZR, and Fielding Bible +/- defensive ratings. A rating of zero is average, above zero is above-average (the higher, the better), and below zero is below-avearge (the lower, the worse).


The metrics are in agreement that 2006 was a horrible year defensively for Holliday. For whatever reason, Holliday does not rank well in Total Zone, but UZR and The Fielding Bible +/- system have him as an above-average fielder for most of his career. His career ranking in Total Zone is a poor -16. This is due largely to his first three seasons; in the last five seasons, he has had Total Zone scores of -1, -2, 0, 0, and 0. Holliday has a career UZR of 10.7 and a career Fielding Bible +/- score of +27--both of which rate him as a very good left fielder for his career.

On top of his first-rate play, Holliday is also a clubhouse leader. Last week ESPN published a story on David Freese's unlikely rise from Mizzou dropout to World Series hero. The whole article is worth a read but it included an intriguing piece of reporting on Holliday taking Freese under his wing after Freese's second drunk-driving charge:

[Freese] credits Matt Holliday. After the DUI, the Cardinals outfielder told Freese, who is single and prefers living alone, to stick by him, that he wasn't going to let him screw up his gift. Last off-season, the two were always together, hitting, lifting and hanging out at Holliday's house. They talked about life, relationships, busting your ass and putting the bad behind you. "That was the greatest thing, because I had a role model to learn from daily," says Freese, who isn't drinking now. "He's a big brother to me -- a great teammate, person, everything. He's a big reason I'm still in this game."

In addition to his off-the-field leadership, Holliday also sets the tone on the field. His play-a-hard-nine style is in the vein of Scott Rolen and makes it crystal clear why manager Tony La Russa openly campaigned for the Cardinals to acquire Holliday via trade. There are many examples of this on the field but one sticks out in my memory.

Last season against the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals were down 5-3 in the bottom of the fifth inning and had a rally brewing. The bases were loaded with one out. Freese was at the plate and Holliday was on first base. Freese grounded what should have been a double play ball to second that seemed likely to end the inning--but Holliday had other plans. In what I believe is one of the best base-running plays of 2011 by a Cardinal, Holliday went in hard to second base and took out shortstop Starlin Castro. Like an orca hitting a seal caught unawares, Holliday brutally broke up the double play, allowing the Cardinals to plate two runs that tied the game. The Redbirds would go on to open up a yawning lead over the Cubs and win handily. It was a play that would have made Enos Slaughter proud and one that has become a Holliday base-running calling card--he did the same thing to Elvis Andrus to break up a could-have-been double play in Game 6 of the World Series.



After the 2009 season, the Cardinals signed Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million contract that pays him $15 million annually with $2 million deferred. It has turned out to be one of the best free agent signings in recent years with the Cardinals reaping a large surplus in production from the slugger. Holliday posted 6.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 2010, the first of the contract, a WAR total that was worth $26.7 million on the open free agent market, according to the Fangraphs WAR valuation. In 2011, Holliday accrued 5.0 WAR in 124 games, which was worth $22.7 million. The Cardinals have paid Holliday $34 million through the first two years of the contract and have received approximately $49.4 million in WAR, or, $15.4 million in surplus value. There is still a lot of time left on the contract--five years--but it has been a superb signing by general manager John Mozeliak through its first two seasons.

My friend's text message was spot on. Holliday's performance with the bat is amongst the top ten-to-fifteen in all of the big leaguers year in and year out. Holliday also fields his position well. On top of that, he is a leader off the field and sets a hard-nosed tone in between the lines. With Pujols choosing to play in Anaheim for ten years and $254 million over returning to St. Louis, thank goodness the Cardinals still have Holliday.