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Matt Holliday and the great bargain contract

Even if Matt Holliday had one of the worst seasons in history in 2016 his contract would still be worth every penny.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine heading into the next fiscal year at your place of employment, your last year on the job, knowing you could perform as poorly as anyone ever has in the history of said job, and that your tenure there would still be held in high regard?  (Robert De Niro might be pulling this off as we speak.)  Those sort of no pressure, no fuss expectations would probably speak to exceptional past performance, and that's the enviable position where Matt Holliday finds himself today.

It's widely known that Holliday has been a huge bargain for the Cardinals.  Since signing a seven-year/$120 million contract in 2010 (with a team option for 2017), the richest contract in team history, he's been one of the most valuable players in the National League (more on that in a moment).  And, as Ben Godar highlighted yesterday, the Cardinals had the luxury of inking Holliday to this deal before opt-outs became more common with high-end free agents.

Holliday's contract would look even better if he played good defense in left field but he doesn't.  2011 was the last time he posted a positive UZR.  As a result, since early last season when it was apparent first base was a problem for the Cardinals - a problem which is projected to persist into 2016 - there's been half-serious chatter that Holliday should give the position a try.  I've dabbled in this trade myself.  It's good to dream but Holliday to first base won't happen.  A more ideal scenario would be for the Cardinals to pick up his option in 2017 in a designated hitter role but we learned this week that's also unlikely.

And that's fine, Holliday's defense is not a big concern of mine because the value of his contract comes from his bat.  Since signing the contract he's hit .294/.384/.490, including 123 home runs in 3,425 plate appearances.  Two years after he signed the deal, a literal and figurative offensive void was left on the roster when Albert Pujols headed west. With that context in hindsight, Holliday's offensive production seem ever more valuable if not imperative.  And as recently noted by Joe Schwarz, even as Holliday's power has diminished with age he's still shown to be quite adept as an offensive player.  Holliday's .394 on-base percentage in 2015 came in limited action due to quad injuries (277 total plate appearances), but it was still his highest OBP since joining the Cardinals.

To understand his value, know that Holliday has been worth 23.7 fWAR while under this contract, which is sixth in the National League, behind Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto, Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, and Giancarlo Stanton, and ahead of the likes of Ryan Braun, Yadier Molina, and Justin Upton - who have all seen a comparative amount of plate appearances.  In those six years, Holliday has made just under $101 million, meaning he's cost about $4.26 million per win.  Coincidentally, in 2015, $4.26 million was approximately the average major league salary (and coincidentally, because of the injuries, Holliday was worth only about one win per fWAR in 2015).

For perspective, and I'm not sure if there's a perfect science to this calculation, but it seems understood that the cost per win on the free agent market in 2016 is around $7.5 to $8 million.  Even adjusting for inflation (opening day payroll in MLB in 2010 was $2,717,766,875 and ballooned to around $3.6 billion in 2015), Holliday has easily been worth every penny.  In 2016, Steamer projects Holliday to be worth 1.9 wins while ZiPS gives him a zWAR of 1.6.  That's not unfair, he'll be in his age-36 season.  And if he performs to the slightly more conservative ZiPS projection, he'll still finish out the contract (excluding the team option in 2017) costing just under $5 million per win.  On the whole, it would still be regarded as a great contract from the Cardinals' perspective.

The takeaway, and my opening point, is that Holliday's been so good that he'd have to be really bad in 2016 for history to judge his time with the Cardinals a bit differently.  Really bad - as in he'd have to be maybe one of the worst everyday players of all time.  Per FanGraphs, here are the ten least valuable outfielders since 1901 by fWAR who have qualified for a batting title:

  1. Jose Guillen (1997) - Pirates: -3.1
  2. Ruben Sierra (1993) - A's: -2.6
  3. Luis Polonia (1993) - Angels: -2.6
  4. Lou Piniella (1973) - Royals: -2.4
  5. Bernie Williams (2005) - Yankees: -2.3
  6. Dante Bichette (1999) - Rockies: -2.1
  7. Von Joshua (1977) - Brewers: -2.1
  8. Chris James (1989) - Phillies/Padres: -2.0
  9. Joe Carter (1990) - Padres: -2.0
  10. Johnny Rucker (1944) - Giants: -2.0

A couple of things before returning to the topic at hand: First, there's a reason why Jose Guillen played on ten different teams in 14 years.  And second, Dante Bichette is noted here as having the sixth worst season by WAR in 1999 for an outfielder since 1901, yet he had an .895 OPS that season.  Sure, OPS is an imperfect stat but .895 would have ranked sixth in the National League in 2015 yet was 24th in 1999.  Baseball in 1999 was weird.

Anyway, let's say Holliday somehow "outperforms" Jose Guillen and is worth -3.2 WAR in 2016.  Over the course of his entire contract he'd still equal out to costing about $5.79 million per win.  And then say even in light of this very bad season, the Cardinals inexplicably exercise their option for 2017 and Holliday returns for another abysmal -3.2 WAR-type season.  The contract would then equal out to around $7.78 million per win.  It no longer looks like the huge bargain but it's still not an albatross.  And for context, Mike Leake is due to make an average of $16 million over the next five years and he was worth 1.7 fWAR in 2015.

Baseball fans can be a fickle "What have you done for me lately?" lot, and if Matt Holliday is sinking to the bottom of the WAR barrel in 2016 while making $17 million the average fan probably won't care how good he was between 2010 and 2014.  That's fair.  But in no universe is Holliday going to have such a dreadful season.  Every single player in the list above had at least 516 plate appearances to maximize their ineffectiveness.  If Holliday sees that much action in 2016 it's hard to imagine that it won't be to the team's advantage.  And even if it's not, the Cardinals will still have zero regrets about this contract, which is the most a team can ask for when the subject is the biggest contract in franchise history.