The past couple games, I've been thinking. More specifically, I was watching Sunday's victory and was struck by a thought, then returned to that same thought Monday night as the contest came to a close.
The thought I was struck by as the Cards were cleaning the Crew's clocks came as a result of the outfield alignment, which featured Jon Jay in left, Peter Bourjos in center, and Oscar Taveras in right. And the thought was this:
Huh. Interesting. I wonder: is this the Cardinals' best outfield right now?
Now, everybody pump your brakes for just a moment, because here's the thing: it's not a true thought. At all. And almost immediately after thinking it, I dismissed the notion. Matt Holliday is, after all, missing from that outfield, and Matt Holliday is, somewhat unbelievably, still the Cardinals' best hitter this year. I say somewhat unbelievably because it seems like such a slog for him, such an uncharacteristically frustrating year. And yet, his wRC+ of 126 is still tops on the team, just ahead of Jay and Jhonny Peralta, both tied at 125. Matt Carpenter comes in at 118; Matt Adams comes in just behind him at 117. So despite the sudden, uneasy feeling that Matt Holliday has hit an unexpected patch of decline, not to mention a 40 point drop in BABIP from 2012 to now, and a 42 point drop in ISO over the same time period, he remains the best hitter the St. Louis Cardinals have.
Which isn't to say he's been the Cards' best player this season, of course; Peralta, by dint of his remarkable showing on both sides of the ball has that honour all but locked down. But Holliday is, for now, by the slimmest of margins, still the most productive offensive force in the lineup.
On the other hand, it's tough to argue that an outfield featuring players other than Holliday doesn't offer the Cardinals more defensive ability. When he came to the Redbirds initially, Holliday was an underrated defender (and only got more underrated following the '09 NLDS, when he missed the catch that assisted Ryan Franklin in self-destructing), who didn't get the credit he deserved as an athlete, rather being painted as a purely a slugger, lumbering and inept in the field. Since that time, though, perception and reality have moved much closer, and not in the positive way of growing appreciation. He's undoubtedly lost a step or two, and the numbers now show a player who gives back a decent chunk of the value he creates with his bat on defense. An outfield without Holliday is almost surely not the Cardinals' best, but there is an element it offers in spades.
Back when Holliday signed his seven-year, $119 million contract with the Cardinals under which he's currently playing, I penned a column about the deal. I wasn't against it, exactly, but I wasn't really dancing in the streets over the idea of having Matt Holliday for seven years, either. The point of the column was this: seven years is a long time. To illustrate, I drug out plenty of things which were true seven years before, such as the fact the player who, at the time Holliday signed, looked like a future franchise cornerstone player and centerfielder of the next decade, Colby Rasmus (and remember, Rasmus was coming off a sixteen-home-runs-with-amazing-defense season of 2.6 WAR as a 22 year old in 2010), couldn't yet drive. Or the fact Sterling Hitchcock was a Cardinal in 2003.
In the years since I wrote that piece, Holliday has played nearly five seasons of the seven he was guaranteed, and he has far exceeded the expectations I had for him. He has been, largely, one of the best free-agent signings in baseball over the past decade, in terms of the return on investment. He's been worth 22.5 wins above replacement (by Fangraphs, I should say), which, even if going with a fairly conservative estimation of $5 million per win on the open market, basically pays for the whole contract already. And, of course, realistically, the price per win is higher than that, especially now.
But this season...well, this season, Father Time looks to have finally caught up to Father Forearms, at least a little. That combination of drops in both isolated slugging and BABIP would seem to indicate he's just not hitting the ball as hard as he used to; Holliday has infamously been a player who beats his xBABIP year after year, in theory because he just hits the ball so damned hard. Not so much in 2014. Pull-side power in particular has been tougher for him to come by than in the past, perhaps as a result of declining bat speed.
The ordinary rate of decline for hitters is, very broadly speaking, projected to be something along the lines of half a win per season once they reach their decline phase. If that number had held true for Holliday this season, we'd have to be pretty happy with the results. Consider that in 602 plate appearances in 2013, the Matt of Matts was worth 4.4 wins. In 601 plate appearances so far in 2014, he's been worth...2.7 wins. The good news is that he'll play some more this season, likely pushing his WAR for the year up around three even. The bad news is that's still roughly a win and a half fall off in one year. If this year's numbers are the new baseline for Holliday, we might expect him to drop to two and a half wins next year, and something around two in 2016, making him an exactly league-average player in the final year of his deal. League-averageness for $17 million a year is not ideal, but, again, I'll point out that he's been worth so much over the first part of his deal that it's really kind of unfair to bitch about the cost on the last years he's signed. Of course, if this year is the aberration and Holliday bounces back up next season, maybe declining off the previous baseline instead of the new one, so much the better.
There is an option for the 2017 season, but I have a hard time seeing the Cardinals picking that option up, honestly. Considering the outfield depth the organisation currently has percolating, an option season of Matt Holliday at $17 million or whatever it is at age 37 seems like not only an expensive luxury, but a wholly unnecessary one. Perhaps even counterproductive, really.
But, then again, that's two and a half years away. And while it's tough to see things going completely off the rails in the next two seasons, it's not impossible. After all, look at the things that have changed just since I wrote that column hand-wringing over the contract I'm now championing. At the time, Colby Rasmus looked to be the future face of the franchise, we had yet to enjoy seeing Lance Berkman ever play in a Cardinal uniform (or Carlos Beltran, for that matter), and the big offseason acquisition for El Birdos was Brad Penny, all nine starts' worth of him. Hell, lil scooter was just graduating from third grade.
I was worried about the years on the contract when it was signed, and the intervening seasons, while brilliant, haven't entirely assuaged my concerns over the incredibly long deals the top players in the game are commanding, if only because Holliday seems, at this point, almost an island unto himself, virtually the only one of these big, long-term deals which looks better now than it did the day it was signed. Of course, if the Cardinals were to trade for Giancarlo Stanton in the offseason and lock him up to a ten-year deal for a quarter of a billion dollars, I would, to quote a great but small man, party as if it was the last year of the past millenium, so I can't say I'm a man of principle, exactly.
The Matt Holliday contract has been an unequivocal win for the organisation, and even in his somewhat diminished current form, Holliday himself remains perhaps the most important cog in the offense. Or at least the biggest, blockiest, Lego-iest cog. But looking back at the time it was signed, watching the players the Cardinals currently have available in the outfield, how the pieces fit together, and realising Matt Holliday is still guaranteed to be a Cardinal for two more seasons beyond the current, it just drives home the point of the column I penned that cold January morning four and a half years ago.
Seven years is a hell of a long time.