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The meaning of Matt Holliday in New York

Cardinals, we love you but you’re bringing us down.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As the Winter Meetings get underway, news broke late yesterday afternoon that Matt Holliday has signed a one-year contract with the New York Yankees worth $13 million. Before the end of the 2016 season, the writing was on the wall that it was very unlikely that Holliday would be back with the Cardinals for 2017. The club announced at the tail-end of September that they would not be picking up his $17 million option, and once the offseason hit its stride there was virtually no talk of an amended contract between the two sides.

Holliday was more than just a reliable body (he ranked in the top ten in the National League in plate appearances since signing the contract), he produced, too. For players with at least 2,500 plate appearances since ‘10, Holliday ranked in the top ten in on-base percentage, slugging, runs scored, runs batted in, doubles, home runs, and fWAR. Basically you name the stat and he was nearby. To put it simply, over the course of the contract he was one of the best players in the league.

And about that contract, it’s pretty much common knowledge that history is going to judge it very kindly from the organization’s perspective. We’ve cracked these numbers before, but in total Holliday’s contract ended up equalling out to about $4.8 million per win. The market is fluid, even in such a short span as seven years, but we’re likely to see teams leaving Washington, DC, this week having signed much lesser players to a lot larger sums.

Because Holliday’s tenure ran parallel with one of the most successful stretches in franchise history, he’s going to arrive in New York with a championship ring and ownership of some big moments that can’t be found on his regular season resume. Michael Wacha gets nearly all of the credit for the Cardinals surviving a must-win Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS in Pittsburgh - and he deserves every bit of it - but without Holliday’s two-run homer the Cardinals lose that game 1-0 and the team doesn’t go on to win their 19th pennant. This was still at a time when there was a stupid narrative that Holliday was “unclutch.” That seems to been dead and buried long ago and thank heavens for that.

A few weeks later in the 2013 NLCS, Holliday nearly hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium:

The following year in the same park, Holliday put the exclamation point on an improbable 8-run inning in Game 1 of the NLDS:

Yet it still might be a moment from the regular season - one of his very last with the Cardinals - that’s going to be the prelude to any sort of “Matt Holliday Day” in the future:

Amazing, indeed. Anyway...

What does this mean for Holliday?

This move could rejuvenate Holliday’s offensive production. Holliday’s offense took a big dip last year - his .782 OPS was the worst of his career - but luck might not have been on his side. He easily had the worst batting average on balls in play (.253) for his career even though his hard contact (38.5%) actually rose from 2015 (33.3%) and was above his career average (35.6%).

Whether he’ll play in left field, DH, or fill some hybrid of the two in the Bronx, Holliday will now be teeing off for at least a season in a hitter-friendly park. A total of 634 home runs have been hit at new Yankee Stadium over the last three seasons, which is more than any other American League stadium. If healthy, it’s hard to envision him not hitting at least 20 home runs for the eleventh time in twelve years.

Holliday, who’s entering his age-37 season, is likely to one day retire firmly entrenched in the Hall of Guys Who Were Very Good. For left fielders, his current bWAR of 44.1 is well below the 65.1 HOF average for the position. (It should be noted that fWAR gives Holliday a bit more generous value at 49.9.) His JAWS score of 39.4 is also well below the 53.3 HOF positional average and a shred below such controversial inductees like Jim Rice (41.8). Still, if Holliday can DH for a few seasons in the twilight of his career, he may very well retire with a resume strong enough to hang around on the ballot for a few years and start some conversation pieces.

What does this mean for the Cardinals?

I’m sharing the following tweet from VEB’s own John Fleming because I thought he hit the nail on the head:

The Cardinals, assumably, let Holliday leave town for a one-year contract at a price well below the club option. How this will be perceived in the long run will largely depend on what the club does in the coming weeks. The outfield currently has a hole. Holliday would have helped. Since Albert Pujols left, first base has basically been a revolving door. If needed, Holliday would have helped. He was never going to win a Gold Glove at the position but neither is anyone else on the roster.

So the silver lining here is there should be a bit more pressure on the Cardinals to make a splash before next season. Holliday was one of the franchise’s best players. He had a lot good will with the fans and he had built a lot of good will within the community (if you haven’t already, read this piece from Derrick Goold from just over a week ago). Rather than ensure that a still useful and beloved player retire as a Cardinal, they let him walk for a price that was easily affordable. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that so long as it was done for an obvious reason. We’ll see.

But most important, good luck to Matt Holliday in New York. We were all lucky to have him for seven years as a Cardinal and he will be missed.