During the off-season, I had a worrisome article on Matt Holliday. In 2015, even before he was injured, his fly ball percentage (FB%) was down, his pulled batted balls were down (Pull%), and his home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) was down. Holliday had previously been known for the classic pure hitter characteristic of spraying the ball all over the field, but in 2015 Holliday was one of the least likely players to pull the ball in the league, 3rd of all players with 200+ PA on the year. Holliday had the shortest season of his career in 2015, so the hope was that it was just a sample size issue, though at the time I pointed out that the sample size was actually at a reasonable amount to assign some weight to them.
Joe had a great breakdown on Holliday's ground ball proclivity a little over a week ago, noting an increase in both GB% and how often a pitcher targets the bottom third of the zone or below vs. Holliday that has continued in 2015. The ground balls are certainly an issue, but it's actually been an issue his entire career. In my off-season post on Holliday, I shared a breakdown by month of Holliday's stats, to get an idea of how he changed as the season wore on, to see if there was a truth to the common narrative that Holliday is a better hitter in the second half of the season. There was certainly one large part of his profile that changed as the season wore on, his GB rate (and by extension, his GB/FB):
As you can see, over his career, his GB/FB rate has always been unusually high in April, and a bit higher than usual in May, before straightening out the rest of the season. This affect was even more pronounced last year when looking at his rate before and after his injury, which occurred on June 8th: he was hitting 1.84 ground balls per fly ball before injury; 1.2 ground balls per fly ball afterwards. Holliday's GB% so far is higher than even his average April, but his GB/FB is actually in about the normal range for his career norm, due to an unusually low 11.1% LD%. That LD% will regress upwards, and there's no reason I can think of for why it wouldn't take equal amounts of fly balls and grounders to achieve that.
Another concern I had was his Pull%, but his Pull% has went right back to normal after his weird 2015 performance:
Interestingly, this was entirely due to a drop-off in pulling fastballs, which has so far went back to normal:
While Holliday is getting pitched low more often, there isn't any discernible difference in how he's pitched inside vs. outside. Getting pitched outside more often in 2015 would have explained him going the other way more, or getting pitched inside more often could have signaled that pitchers picked up on some issue Holliday was having pulling the ball. But, if something besides noise was the issue in 2015, it seems to have been alleviated in 2016. My bet would be that Holliday simply didn't have his timing down in 2015. Like Wong, Holliday uses an exaggerated leg kick that can make getting his timing down rough. Holliday talked about it in 2012 during a rough start to the season:
"I wish my swing was less complicated," Holliday said. "There's a lot more going on in mine than with guys who don't have a leg kick. You watch Lance (Berkman) and it never looks different whether he's going good or bad. It's just who I am. That's how I hit. It's what I got and I'm not going to change"
The third issue I had was Holliday's pure batted ball authority. Not only was his HR/FB rate down, his Hard Hit% was well down from previous years, at 33% rather than in the 39's where he was each of the previous years. That's back up to about where he usually is, especially considering he generally tends to hit the ball harder as the season goes on. Holliday apparently didn't have the playing time to qualify on BaseballHeatMaps.com's fly ball distance leaderboard last year, but his numbers this year are certainly strong, as he sits at 50th in average fly ball distance this year out of 244, just outside the top 20%. Among those with at least 50 tracked batted balls, Baseball Savant has him at 20th out of 258 in average Exit Velocity at 93.7 mph, this year at up from 91.6 mph last year. So far, the only limiting part of Holliday's profile is his .261 BABIP, which is 76 points lower than his career average, with no legit reason for his BABIP to be so out of sync.
The chances are looking very strong that the Cardinals will pick up Holliday's option. Left unattended, with Moss leaving and Holliday not being guaranteed a salary, the outfield situation next year would consist of Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Jeremy Hazelbaker. The Jeremy Hazelbaker story has been a great one, but I doubt the Cardinals are looking at him as a potential starter. Tommy Pham's long injury history should preclude any team planning on contending to rely on him as an everyday starter. Both are more than acceptable as fourth and fifth outfielders though, and as hedged bets against Grichuk.
Holliday's option comes in at $17M, with a $1M buy-out, so the Cardinals have a $16M decision to make. Here are the notable outfielders that hit the market next year:
Carlos Gomez and Josh Reddick both represent upgrades over Matt Holliday, but its hard to expect their eventual deals to work out to something better than giving Holliday essentially a $16M/1 deal for 2016. So the alternative to simply picking up Holliday's option would be going hard after Yoenis Cespedes or Jose Bautista, the two players that would be a large upgrade over retaining Holliday. In MLB Trade Rumor's latest free agent power rankings, Cespedes, Bautista, Reddick, and Gomez placed 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively, though that was before Stephen Strasburg came off the board and before Reddick's latest injury. Cespedes or Bautista would be an intriguing addition as the Cardinals are a tough team to upgrade right now as they don't really have any obvious holes. But, I'd bet the Cardinals take the safer bet and retain Holliday rather than get in a bidding war for one of the best free agents on the market, and bank on signing someone.
At the end of next year, the Cardinals will have a much better idea of what they have in one Harrison Bader, currently hitting the hell out of Double-A pitching. He's had a rough strikeout/walk ratio, but he was also playing in college at this point last year, so the plate approach I think can improve from here on out. The team will also have a lot more information than it currently does on lower minors outfield prospects Magneuris Sierra and Nick Plummer. The riddle that is Randal Grichuk should also at least be closer to being solved by then as well. The Cardinals have the payroll to sign Bautista or Cespedes (who should both cost more than a $100M commitment), but it may not be prudent to make such a large investment when the internal options could end up being almost good at a fraction of the price. That large investment could be used later to fill some more obvious hole later.
Of course, there's still another five months before the Cardinals have to make a decision on Holliday. Things can change. If the Blue Jays don't get back in the race, they may trade Bautista, ridding him of any free agent compensation. Holliday could look worse at the end of the season than he does now.
Holliday is currently performing well, and looking like the same age-defying pure hitter he's been the last few years. His option comes at a reasonable price, and one that beats the likely prices the Cardinals will need to pay to procure outfield production in next year's free agent market. Doing so also allows the team to take a wait to see approach towards their internal options. A lot can happen in the next four months, but look for Holliday to continue wearing the Birds on the Bat again in 2017.