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Cardinals should keep Matt Holliday next year

The Cardinals have a $17 million option next year on Matt Holliday, who might be better than his stats have shown this season.

St Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Earlier this week, fellow writer here Ben Godar, wrote a piece It’s time to say your goodbyes to Matt Holliday. The piece was well-reasoned, and indicated that given Holliday’s declining production, the Cardinals likely wouldn’t pick up Holliday’s $17 million option and that Cardinals fans should appreciate what will likely be his last few months on the team. While Ben’s post makes a lot of sense and could come to pass, I don’t share that sentiment.

This piece should serve as a reminder of a few things. First, while this is a sabermetrically inclined blog that will often use advanced statistics, there is no single VEB groupthink. There is no “they say this at VEB” or “VEB thinks that”. There might be a general consensus on many ideas, but baseball is a wide-ranging enterprise with an array of potentially reasonable opinions. It is important to support any argument with data and reason, but even with that data, differences of opinion are bound to occur. The debates had in our comment sections are sometimes a very good reflection of those differences. Second, and while this is very similar to the first and might not need to be said, I am not VEB, and do not write all of the articles. Most people get that, but Joe, John, Alex, Ben, Ben, red baron, lil_scooter, and the fine people providing prospect updates and writing game recaps all have their own independent voice and those voices help to make this blog as adequate as it can possible be, perhaps even better than adequatulence, if that’s even possible.

As for Matt Holliday, it is fair to argue he is not having a good season. His line of .237/.310/.449 is good for just a 103 wRC+, a far cry from even last season. As an average hitter without good baserunning skills, defense that is better than his reputation suggests, but still slightly below average, and the positional adjustment make Holliday worth roughly one win above replacement over the course of the season. At free agent prices, that would put his value at roughly half his salary. Add in more age-related decline, and his option greatly exceeds his value. That, in brief, is the argument to pay the $1 million buyout and let Matt Holliday go at the end of the season.

On the other hand, production isn’t projection. Just because Holliday has been merely average, which is quite a feat at 36 years of age, that doesn’t mean he will continue to be that way in the future. Normally, we expect production to go down with age and it would be fair to see Holliday’s production this season as an effect of age. That might not be the case.

Matt Holliday’s power is better than it has been in years. His isolated slugging percentage (SLG-BA to “isolate” extra base hits) of .212 is higher than it has been since the 2011 season. With five more home runs, he will have his third-highest total as a Cardinals and most since the 2012 season. His walk rate, at 8% is down some, but that is still an acceptable level, and his 17% strikeout rate is very good given his power.

The problem has been the batting average, which is just .237, which in turn keeps down his on-base percentage and limits his offense. The main cause of this low average has been a very low .245 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). On the radio broadcast yesterday, Rick Horton mentioned BABIP and its association with luck. This is a bit of a mis-characterization as BABIP, especially for hitters is very much a skill. While the league average BABIP will hover around .300, hitters tend to settle in around their skill set.

Matt Holliday has a career .333 BABIP and posting something 100 points lower either represents a big decline in skill, terrible luck or in Holliday’s case, some combination of both. How do we know that it is bad luck and not just terrible decline. His ISO and home run pop is one indicator that Holliday’s skills haven’t declined to the point of making him unplayable. In addition, Holliday is still hitting the crap out of the ball.

Matt Holliday’s average exit velocity on the 245 batted balls he has hit this year is 95 mph, which ranks third in all of Major League Baseball behind only Giancarlo Stanton and Nelson Cruz. Why is this important? The harder you hit the ball, the more likely it is to be hit, and Holliday’s average exit velocity indicates he has had a ton of bad luck hitting the ball this year. Over at FanGraphs, I looked at players whose production did not match their exit velocity, and Matt Holliday’s production was well below what his exit velocity would have suggested. Players similar to Holliday last season, showed massive gains in terms of production in the second half.

Even without a massive gain, Holliday should still be a solid hitter. ZiPS projects Holliday to have a low .270 BABIP, which would result in an improved 110 wRC+ while Steamer projects a .300 BABIP which would result in an even better 119 wRC+. Splitting the difference, and giving Holliday below average baserunning and his standard defense makes Holliday basically a 2-WAR player over the course of the season, average.

If Holliday projects as an average player next year or anything close to it, the Cardinals should just go ahead and pick up his option. While Brandon Moss might be nice to have back next season, the Cardinals can make him the qualifying offer. If he accepts, it will make it more difficult to keep Matt Holliday, but if he declines, it will not make sense to offer Moss multiple years at the same money as Holliday and lose a draft pick.

The difference between Moss and Holliday is not as great as the potential cost, and with an incredibly weak free agent market that will be headlined by Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Ian Desmond, and Dexter Fowler, the cost of acquiring a mid-tier outfielder will be much greater than it was this season when a glut at the top ended up with guys like Denard Span, Fowler, and Desmond taking lesser deals.

The Cardinals might not have center field figured out, but the play of Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham and even the potential emergence of Harrison Bader aren’t likely enough to warrant corner outfield status for those three, and Holliday has shown himself versatile enough to play first base.

There has been some talk about folding the one-year option into a two-year deal, but saving $4 million to $5 million in 2017 doesn’t seem worth guaranteeing him a spot in 2018 when he will be 38 years old. We’ve come to the end and I haven’t yet mentioned intangibles. Holliday is a hard worker, a good teammate and a very good leader, and has been with the team since 2008. You can’t let those things cloud an important $16 million decision, but when the numbers are close, it certainly makes the decision to keep Holliday a lot more comforting.