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Examining Matt Holliday’s age-defiance

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How Holliday’s persistent performance differs from others his age.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Matt Holliday is getting the short end of the stick this season. After years of impressive production in his early and middle 30’s, he’s fallen victim to a barely above-average wRC+ of 103 this year. However, when looking at his stats, you see that it really only has to do with one thing: Batting average on balls in play.

Hitters can hit the ball hard but right at fielders, and they can hit it soft but right in the perfect spot to drop in. Hitters can do a lot of one of those things in a year, and thus have a BABIP much different that his true talent level. Fangraphs recommends a sample size of 820 balls in play in order to get a good idea of a player’s BABIP, much more than a single season’s worth of data. So that makes it hard to tell if a change in BABIP is indicative of a real change in talent.

To get a much more granular view, two weeks ago I delved into BaseballSavant.com’s Statcast data in order to better understand Holliday’s batted ball quality. I came away with the conclusion that Holliday indeed has been very unlucky this season. I found the average value of each batted ball’s Exit Velocity and Launch Angle statcast had tracked, and applied that to each of Matt Holliday’s batted balls. The output was an xBABIP of .322, much higher than his BABIP at the time, .247, or his BABIP now, 244.

Holliday’s lack of speed may limit his BABIP a bit, which my calculation currently doesn’t take into account. However, he’s still crushing all types of batted balls, including grounders, while barely ever being shifted against. Regression on it’s own will make Holliday’s profile looks much better than his current wRC+ suggests.

And don’t just take my word for it. It’s also the opinion of contact quality expert Tony Blengino of Fangraphs. Here’s what he said last month when he ranked Holliday the third best hitter among N.L. left-fielders:

I’ve long been a huge Matt Holliday booster. Crush the baseball, hit it to all fields, maintain a strong K/BB profile: this is the path to long, gradual decline phase,

Holliday could have "harvested" — that is, sold out for pull power — a long time ago, and hit some higher counting number peaks. If he did, he might not even be playing today, and certainly wouldn’t be as good.

Since signing the biggest contract in Cardinals history, Holliday has aged impressively. I wanted to get a better idea of the specifics. So I grabbed every player-season from 2007 to 2016. I started in 2007 because that is when MLB’s Drug testing started, and since then, aging curves have changed. Anyway, Holliday’s signature to me has always been his trademark ability to continually hit the snot out of the ball. So I wanted to build a general aging curve from age 29 to 36 (the last season before he signed with the Cardinals to his age this season) that measured how players decline in Hard%.

One issue however, is that league average Hard% bounces around quite a bit year to year. In order to control for that, I created a Hard+ stat, adjusted for league average, for each season from 2007 to the current year, and would see how, on average, players declined in that stat from 29 to 30, 30 to 31, and so on up 35 to 36. I found every case in which a player had 120 plate appearances in one year in that range, and also had 120 plate appearances in the year after that. I took the average decline for each year, and accumulated those declines in order to build a general aging curve for Hard+ from 29 to 36. I then also took how Holliday specifically has declined. Here are the results:

Pretty amazing. Obviously, he’s aged way better than average, only dipping below average in 2015, Holliday’s lost season. It’s even more impressive than that: 2015 is the only year where he’s shown any decline from his 2009 performance.

Holliday’s hitting the ball harder than average this year than he was when he was 29, despite the fact that the average 36 year old performs 20% worse in the stat compared to when he was 29. I think that’s pretty awesome. But what really matters is production. Let’s look at how Holliday has aged compared to league average in the four core stats: K%, BB%, ISO, and BABIP. Again though, we’ll adjust all of these to league average in each year as the league averages for some of these stats have changed over the years:

A lot to take in here. ISO+ shows much the same picture as Hard+. Holliday has remained around or above the same level he was at 29, again with the exception of last year, which was mostly a lost year. In 2016 however, he’s jumped right back up to his career norms.

Walks have seen a deep drop off, falling below average. But strikeouts have dropped with it, and they seem to be related. His plate discipline stats are nearly identical to his last full season, 2014:

It’s hard to tell what happened to the walks when looking at the plate discipline stats. I would expect them to increase going forward since his profile is pretty similar to what it was in his last full season.

And of course, there’s the BABIP graph, with the ugly downward spike. While I think I’ve already supplied enough reason to be very doubtful of Holliday’s BABIP decline this year, the overall health of the rest of his game I think is another great reason to believe this year is a fluke for Matt.

And taking everything all together, here is the wRC+ graph:

Holliday did an incredible job of maintaining production through the 2013 season, which is when the difference between Holliday’s decline and the average player’s decline peaked. Since then, Holliday has declined more than the average player. That’s not great, but that also involves an injury shortened season and a BABIP suppressed one, so we have a lot of reason to expect that to be a bit of a mirage.

That’s not to say we should expect him to return to 2009-2013 levels, but there’s bounce back potential is the point. It’s also impressive that he’s really only declined in wRC+ a little worse than average for his age the last couple years, despite so much reason to expect the decline to be overblown by short sample sizes one year and a completely out of character BABIP the next.

I think Holliday’s BABIP can bounce back, and two weeks ago I think I made a strong case for that. That bounce back would put him even farther above the average in fighting decline among his age group over the course of his contract. But even without that, his extended peak until 2014 gave him a high perch to fall from, and thus he still sits at a level of production much higher than could be expected when the Cardinals signed him before the 2010 season. The Cardinals flirt with big names in free agency, but rarely end up signing one. It takes a big investment, and the return often doesn't look pretty. But they nailed it when they signed Matt Holliday.