Last month, Max Gelman made the case that Matt Holliday would serve as a perfect substitute for Carlos Beltran in the 2017 Yankees lineup. It’s hard to disagree with Max’s findings, as the two veterans were extremely comparable last season. Still, a cursory look at Holliday’s 2016 numbers could leave some Yankee fans feeling a bit disconcerted.
Holliday had already been in a gradual decline since entering his thirties, but last year seemed to signify a more precipitous drop than any year before. While he did a nice job of regaining his power stroke, his batting average and on-base percentage sunk to career lows (.246 and .322 respectively), and though his .279 True Average equaled Beltran, it was Holliday’s lowest mark since 2006. It’s fair to wonder how enthusiastic fans should be about any player showing that much decline, much less a 37-year-old with mounting injury concern, particularly in an offseason that offered Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo and Mike Napoli as alternative DH options.
At the very least, it’s worth popping the hood on Holliday and seeing if there’s anything particularly foreboding going on.
When a career .300-hitter like Holliday sees his average tank to sub-.250 levels, the first place to look is his BABIP. Unsurprisingly, Holliday’s took a nosedive. In most cases we could chalk that up as a fluke, but again, Holliday is no spring chicken. We’d like to be sure we’re just dealing with variance here and not an erosion of skill.
Let’s work up some theories that might help us figure out which bucket Holliday belongs in.
Theory #1: Did Holliday make weaker contact?
Besides his BABIP, the thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is Holliday’s line drive percentage. His 14.1 percent mark was easily the lowest of his career and five percent lower than his lifetime average. It follows logically that an aging hitter might not hit the ball as hard as he used to, particularly as his body begins to break down. Luckily we now live in an age where Statcast can help diagnose such issues.
|Player||Batted Balls (min. 30)||Avg Exit Velo (mph)|
A quick look at last year’s average exit velocity leaderboard does more than dispel our theory, it actively mocks it. Holliday’s average EV in 2016 was 94.7 mph, good for fifth in all of baseball (30 batted ball minimum). He hit the ball harder than David Ortiz, Josh Donaldson and Gary Sanchez. He hit it a full 3 mph harder than Mike Trout. Holliday straight up scorched the ball in 2016. His low line drive rate was clearly not a result of weaker contact.
Theory #2: Did Holliday sell out for power?
What if Holliday was compensating for a loss of bat speed? Just because he continued to hit the ball hard doesn’t mean his skill hasn’t faded. If he did lose a step, he could have started swinging from his heels, possibly explaining how he raised his home run rate to its highest mark in five seasons. After all, Aaron Judge is one of the few names even higher than Holliday on the EV leaderboard, and Yankee fans don’t need to be reminded of the swings and misses that went tandem with his great power.
This also looks like a dead end. While Holliday’s walk rate did dip, his raw plate discipline numbers were largely unchanged. He didn’t chase more balls out of the zone, and he didn’t whiff any more than usual. In fact, he actually made more contact inside the strike zone than in at any other point in his career. If Holliday were selling out for power, you’d expect the exact opposite: more whiffs and much less bat control than displayed here.
Theory #3: Did Holliday lose hits to the shift?
This is a last ditch effort to come up with some explanation, and it’s the most easily disproven of all. The shift has certainly wreaked havoc on BABIPs across the league as its grown in popularity over the past few years, but we cannot claim Holliday as a victim. Opposing teams shifted him just 18 times in 2016, where he was able to pick up three hits. It was worth a shot, but no dice.
We made three attempts to try to reasonably explain Holliday’s 2016 dropoff and have nothing to show for it. We did learn some interesting things, however: Holliday wasn’t affected by the shift, he maintained his solid plate discipline and he still hit the ball as hard as ever. Based on those factors, it seems that his .253 BABIP truly was an aberration. Sometimes guys really do just get unlucky.
Expecting Holliday’s BABIP to return to his career .333 average might be asking a bit much at this point in his career, but it seems reasonable to expect a bounce back above .300. Even if his power regresses some, that should help make him one of the more productive hitters in the Yankee lineup and a pretty nice bargain at his price.
Lead photo: Billy Hurst / USA Today Sports