Thirty-two team games into the 2016 season, St. Louis Cardinals third batsman Matt Holliday, who has made an appearance in every game but one, has been what is considered an average hitter exactly, posting a wRC+ of 100 in 115 plate appearances (an even 100 is average). While 36-year-old seven-time All Star has experienced an increase in power (.196 ISO, .431 SLG) from 2015, he is walking and hitting line drives less frequently. Further, Holliday is hitting more ground balls this season than he ever has in his 13-year MLB career.
Batted Ball Profile (2010-2016)
The "flashing lights" message to receive from this chart is the steady climb of Holliday's ground ball rate over the last two seasons. But remember, as I mentioned in my article on the strikeouts of Randal Grichuk, sample size must be taken into consideration whenever discussing statistics this early in the season. The stabilization point for ground ball and fly ball rates is 80 balls in play. Through Sunday's 10-5 loss to the Pirates, Holliday has managed to put 66 balls in play, so while he has not quite reached the stabilization point, he's not too far away, either—four or five more games penciled into the three-hole and he’s there.
Thus, while it is hard to believe Holliday that will continue to hit ground balls as frequently as he has thus far, it is an issue that can no longer be ignored after 115 plate appearances. Line drive rate takes a considerably larger sample to stabilize (600 balls in play), so I would not yet be too worried about Holliday's 12.0%. Yet, as you can see from the chart, Holliday's line drive rates have been consistently weird throughout his career, seemingly flipping on a year-to-year basis. Should we see a decrease in ground ball rate going forward, the batted ball profile will ideally skew toward line drives, or, at the very least, fly balls because it is a whole lot easier to hit an extra base hit through the air than on the ground.
Pitch Location (2010-2016)
The following table shows the percentages of pitches against Holliday that have landed in the bottom two rows of a BrooksBaseball.net heatmap. If you have read even a handful of my articles in the past, you should already be quite familiar with this type of heatmap, but if not, I have included 2016's below as a guide for what I mean specifically regarding pitch location.
And 2016's heatmap (with the bottom two rows boxed in yellow):
Quick note: This heatmap does not include pitches from Sunday's game as it was not yet updated at the time of publishing.
Along with the increase in ground ball rate, it makes sense to learn that Holliday is too facing more pitches down in the zone than he faced in previous seasons, with 56.78% of the pitches he's seen so far in 2016 falling in the bottom two rows. And unfortunately, unlike seasons past, Holliday has not yet been able to successfully lift any of these pitches down in the zone, even those within the strike zone.
Ground Ball Pitch Location Breakdown
Via PitchF/x Query on BaseballSavant.mlb.com
Combine Holliday being pitched down more frequently with the knowledge that ~23% of his ground balls have come on pitches middle-up, and you end up with a less-than-desirable batted ball profile, especially for a team's main three hitter. Now, hitting grounders on pitches middle-up is not necessarily a new development for Holliday, or any hitter for that matter, as it is an inevitability given hitters and pitchers continually make adjustments to each other, but when he is not presently lifting low pitches, either, his sweet spot for so many years (check out the bottom row in the strike zone from 2007 through 2014), the issue of missing out on potential line drives or even long (read: home run distance) fly balls becomes magnified. Frankly, if Holliday continues to drive the majority of pitches into the ground, why would an opponent pitch him anywhere else but down?
Finally...Holliday's (Deserved) Spot in the Order
While the three spot is a relatively overrated position in the lineup, it is still more important than the six through nine spots, largely because oftentimes it will tie with the one and two spots for most plate appearances in a game. At the same time, it is overrated because a not-insignificant portion of these plate appearances will come with two outs and no runners on base.
Admittedly, lineup construction is probably not as influential as we think. In other words, the content of a lineup is incredibly more important than the order of a lineup. That being said, it makes logical sense to stack your better hitters at the top and your lesser hitters at the bottom (hiding a 194 wRC+ in the eight slot is absolutely insane, by the way).
While Holliday has been one of the Cardinals best hitters since being acquired via trade way back in 2009, he simply has not been able to hit at a team-best level this season (or last, really). As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Holliday has been the perfect definition of average with his 100 wRC+. Sure, he projects to be considerably better than average the rest of the way (118 wRC+ via ZiPS), but until his batted ball profile begins to show signs of promise (regardless of the actual results), he has no business batting in the top third of the lineup.
Yet, as one of the team's three primary veterans (along with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina), it is difficult to see Mike Matheny moving Holliday from his customary three spot, but if Matheny's removal of Wainwright during the middle of an inning in his most recent start, against his wishes, is any indication, maybe the fifth-year manager is more inclined to ruffle a few feathers should he believe it is what is best for a currently middling team, a completely foreign environment for the manager in the regular season.