Three to Six

Larry Levin

By Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO

It’s not that Matt Holliday can’t play at the major league level anymore.

It’s not that Matt Holliday can’t be a valuable part of a contender.

It’s not that Matt Holliday should be traded.

It’s that the Cardinals need to come to grips with a reality that is not of Matt Holliday’s doing.

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In the Mother Nature eras of baseball, before and after the bloated batting stats of the ’90s and Oughts, there have been general trends that, while not inviolate, have resulted in highly predictable performance declines associated with aging.

There certainly are examples recorded, mostly by freaks of extreme performance, that belie the general rule.  Pete Rose, for instance, still garnered about 20 percent of his massive, all-time leading hit total of 4,256 after his Age 38 season, though that was the last one in which he collected over 200 hits.   And slugger Henry Aaron was already 39 when he last belted 40 homers.

But these are the exceptions, not norms, and that’s why they’re Hall of Famers. In the Famous Case of Barry Bonds, he staved off the impact of aging with you-know-whats, and he just kept on slamming and jamming into his 40s.

A good example of the non-PED norm in the present convo would be someone like the Rockies star Todd Helton. An absolute RBI and slugging machine during his prime, Helton never hit less than 39 doubles in any season from his Age 25 to Age 33 seasons. Sure, he was sky high in altitude-helping Coors, but after that stretch, he mustered only one year in the same park with as many as 38.

What he was able to do, however, until his last two seasons, was keep an on-base percentage (OBP) well north of .350, a figure that is considered a benchmark of reasonable success in getting to first base or beyond by hit or walk.

Which brings us back to Holliday.

There’s been a steady decline of overall power and slugging from Matt over several years, but that in and of itself has not really precluded him from being a “plus” hitter, especially as he’s been able to get on base at a steady clip of between 3.5 and 4 times per 10 times at bat.

Not so this year, however. He’s been struggling to hit, struggling to walk, struggling overall to find a way onto the bases.  His April and May career OBPs are .370 and .373, respectively – not as good as his figures during warm-weather months, but way better than the vast percentage of major leaguers.

This year to date? Try .317. By way of comparison, that’s lower than Kolten Wong’s 2015 OBP of .319, which the second baseman had reached as an almost 30-point improvement over his 2014 figure. And it’s about 20 points below Wong’s 2016 OBP thus far.

Do you think of Wong as an on-base machine? No, I didn’t think so.

Which yet again, brings us back to Holliday.

The #3 hitter in a major league lineup, at least for a contender, has to be someone who advances the cause in a meaningful way. Some advance it with more power, some less; others with more on-base, others less; still others with consistency.

Holliday’s challenge right now is that he’s not getting on base; his slug is at the lower end of what his career has provided; and he remains an incredibly streaky hitter. 

The other problem with Matt is that his amazing career has not stemmed from ideal mechanics, or being a student of hitting styles, or (best I can tell) from hours in the video room. He’s a just-plain-that-good natural athlete, one who can compensate for awkward swings by lightning-quick reflexes and muscle memory.

If you doubt his ability to overcome weak mechanics, try watching him play left field. Rarely has there been a player who makes somewhat routine catches look like adventures. He usually gets to ‘em, but you’re often not quite sure if he will.

And that’s exactly the fear. One worries that no matter the effort or the talent, the decline for Matt will be based on his body not being able to replicate – we might say, get away with – the ways he was successful in the past.

Loyalists will heap scorn on this analysis, while pure sabermatricians might say a lineup shift isn’t sufficient – with Holliday’s analytics pointing to barely above a league average, they could advocate for a trade or benching.

But I say that the guy is still a potentially dangerous hitter, one capable of changing an inning or a game. He’s just not going to do so as often as in the past, and his weakness in getting on base causes a drag on the top half of the lineup.

So for Matt, I say to Matheny and Mo, keep him around, play him most days, but drop him down to a hole that befits his current and most likely future capabilities. That’s no insult – it’s a compliment to the major-league staying power of a darn fine athlete.