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Finding historical context for Matt Holliday

With his Cardinals tenure seemingly coming to an end, now is a good time to take stock of Matt Holliday’s impressive career.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

Note: the Baseball Reference Play Index was an indispensable resource for this post. You should absolutely subscribe to it.

With 23 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement since his arrival in St. Louis at the 2009 trade deadline, Matt Holliday trails only Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright in the statistic in that time among Cardinals players. But unlike Wainwright, who in that time finished in the top three in Cy Young voting on four occasions, and Molina, who received first-place MVP votes twice, Holliday finished no higher than 11st in MVP voting.

Six Cardinals players have, during Holliday’s Cardinals tenure, finished higher than Matt Holliday’s top MVP finish in St. Louis—Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Molina, Matt Carpenter, Wainwright, and Jhonny Peralta. Five players had individual seasons by bWAR which ranked higher than Holliday’s 2010 peak: Pujols, Molina, Wainwright, Jason Heyward, and Carlos Martinez.

The nature of Matt Holliday’s tenure in St. Louis, and by extension his career since debuting with the Colorado Rockies in 2004, is consistency. In his thirteen MLB seasons, Matt Holliday’s career-worst OPS+, a league and park adjusted measurement of a player’s offensive prowess by which 100 is considered league average, Holliday’s worst year was his rookie season, in which his OPS+ was 103. Among players active in 2016, only five have more 103 or greater OPS+ seasons than Holliday’s thirteen: Alex Rodriguez (19), David Ortiz (17), Albert Pujols (16), Miguel Cabrera (14), and Carlos Beltran (14).

In Holliday’s 10th best season by OPS+, 2015, he finished the season at 121. This, in what was a decline year for Holliday, matches the career OPS+ of the aforementioned Carlos Beltran and Dale Murphy, and exceeds the career OPS+ of such Hall of Famers as Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, and Andre Dawson.

Holliday’s ten seasons with an OPS+ of 121 or higher in seasons with at least 200 plate appearances (Holliday’s lowest PA total was 277) are eclipsed by 89 players in MLB history—59 are in the Hall of Fame. Since Holliday debuted, only Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz have more seasons at that level.

Among position players born in 1980 or later, Matt Holliday is tied for 12th in career WAR, currently tied with Ryan Braun (that Mike Trout, born in 1991, ranks 9th might be my new favorite baseball fun fact).

He ranks just ahead of Curtis Granderson and Adrian Gonzalez, and this is a fairly good approximation of Holliday’s historic stature: he is in very good company, and certainly Granderson and Gonzalez are among the better players of their era, but neither is likely to merit anything beyone superficial consideration for the Hall of Fame.

His career is not over, but barring a Bondsian career from age 37 onward (in case you were wondering, Barry Bonds has a 35% lead over Honus Wagner and Cap Anson for the career lead in Wins Above Replacement after turning 37; the only other hitters with half of Bonds’s post-37 WAR as position players were Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Luke Appling, and Babe Ruth), Holliday will probably similarly fall short of Cooperstown—make the ballot, perhaps get a few courtesy votes, but never seriously contend for induction.

And that is a better career than most could hope to have. It just so happens that he has spent most of his career flying far under the radar. Even when he was the best player and an MVP runner-up in Colorado when the team won its only NL pennant, the Rockies were not a highly publicized or marketable team nationally. With the Oakland Athletics, his team was so unremarkable that he was dealt at the trade deadline after less than four months of baseball on the books in his tenure.

And, of course, he had to deal with Albert Pujols in St. Louis.

In the ways that Holliday, potent as he was, flew under the radar, Albert Pujols couldn’t help but command attention. And even though the 2 13 years of overlap in the Pujols and Holliday eras in St. Louis were one of the quieter stretches of Albert’s time at Busch Stadium (‘quiet’ being a relative term, as he still concluded a unanimous MVP season, nearly won another MVP, and then managed to lead a World Series champion in WAR), Holliday has never escaped the enormous shadow of Albert Pujols.

And in a way, this makes sense, as Holliday is part of the 99-plus percent of baseball players who cannot compete with Pujols-level production, but it would also be unfair to saddle only Holliday with these expectations.

It has long been asserted that Matt Holliday has never been fully accepted by Cardinals fans, a phenomenon that, at least from my vantage point, is overblown—it is not as though Holliday has been harassed with boos, and a few people complaining on Twitter or on message boards about a specific player is hardly unique to Matt Holliday.

It is not that Holliday has been hated; it is that he has been overlooked. And while Matt Holliday was not Albert Pujols, he was a steady, reliable, and very productive player whose contributions to his era of baseball and to the St. Louis Cardinals should not be overlooked.