5/15/09

Here's Looking At: Matt Holliday

"Here's Looking At:" is yet another of our sure-to-be-forgotten serial posts. In these posts, we'll take a look at a player whose performance - whether unexpectedly good or bad - merits a closer look. We'll try to sort out what's going right or wrong, as the case may be, and offer a prognosis on their future.

Today, we're looking at A's OF Matt Holliday. Supposed to be one of the premier bats in the league, and the guy who would bring lots of added thump to the middle of the punchless A's lineup, Holliday has instead fallen flat on his face outside of hitter-friendly Coors Field.  Which, we guess, is not entirely shocking; there is, of course, a history of guys like Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, and Todd Helton, among others, struggling when not in the friendly confines of their offense-inflating home park.  Indeed, Holliday himself has struggled on the road throughout his career.  Let's take a look at some of his numbers.

2009 -  .240/.308/.388, 4 HR, 10 BB, 24 K, 7.6 BB%, 19.8 K%, 9.8 HR/FB%.

Career - .316/.383/.545, 8.6 BB%, 19.0 K%, 17.2 HR/FB%.

So, from this we can see that he's not hitting for as much average or power in Oakland as he was in the rest of his career (obviously), and that his walk rate is slightly down, his strikeout rate is slightly up, and he's hitting a lot less homers per fly ball.  This means that he's feeling the difference between Oakland's spacious stadium and the homer-condoning grounds in Denver, and also that he's probably pressing because of it.  But let's not make general statements; let's look at some more numbers.

Career @ Home: .351/.418/.634, 1.052 OPS, 125 tOPS+

Career on Road: .279/.345/.453, .798 OPS, 73 OPS+.

Wowee.  So Holliday becomes Albert Pujols (career .334/.425/.625) at home, and on the road, he turns into Melvin Mora (career .280/.355/.442).  Dr. Pujols and Mr. Mora?  This is one of the more pronounced splits we've ever seen, and the tOPS shows it.  What that number means is that, 100 being average, any number greater than 100 represents a positive difference in the split and any number below represents a negative difference in the shift.  So as good as he is at home, he's equally mediocre on the road. That should tell us something right there: teams should've been smart enough to leave him alone and let him inflate his stats with Coors' thin air. Though we guess Huston Street and Carlos Gonzalez aren't exactly a king's ransom.  Let's break down what he's doing at the plate to see if that holds any answers.

2009 - swings at 26.2% of pitches out of the zone, 69.4% in the zone, at 47% of pitches overall, and is making contact 77.7% of the time.

Career - swings at 25.2% of pitches out of the zone, 78.3% in the zone, at 52.2% of pitches overall, and made contact 77.7% of the time.

So he's swinging at a few more pitches that are outside of the zone, but isn't pulling the trigger as much on pitches at all, let alone inside the zone, where he's significantly cut down his swing rate.  So maybe he's trying to be more patient, to make up for the lack of tater tots with a greater walk rate.  Maybe he thinks that Billy Beane wrote Moneyball and his only way to stick with the team is to adhere to the book's preaching of the values of the walk.  We don't pretend to know.  In any event, we think the swing data is inconclusive.  So, let's look at the most frequently culpapable number that causes slumps: BABIP.

Batting Average on Balls In Play measures a player's batting average...but only on the balls he hits in play.  So, while batting average takes into account strikeouts and such, BABIP only measures how often the batter reaches base when he puts the ball in play.  As such, the average rates are higher than regular batting average rates; .300 for hitters is pretty good, but you'd definitely prefer it to be higher.  

So what's Holliday's career BABIP?  Well, we just happen to have it right here: .352.  An exceptional number, to be sure - one that, were any lesser player to post it through a couple of weeks or months, we'd be quick to dismiss as flukish, and the result of a small sample size.  

What's his BABIP in 2009?  Glad you asked!  It's a whopping - are you ready for this?! - .269.  The dude's getting unlucky with the balls he's putting in play.  And yet, there's still cause for concern.  While this number would normally increase as a matter of regression to the mean, the biggest determinant in a BABIP rise - line drive rate - is still poor for Holliday.  He's hitting fewer line drives this year (14.4%) than he has in his career (20.2%).  Furthermore, he's popping up on more balls - 42.3% this year vs. 36.4% for his career.  Basically, it looks like he's made a habit of getting under the ball this year.  This discrepancy is easily caused by a change in swing, loading patterns, or injury and the resulting change in swing path.  So because Holliday's hitting more balls in the air, maybe his back shoulder's hurting him and he's dropping it during his swing, causing him to get underneath the ball and put it high in the air.  Who knows?  The point is, Holliday's certainly not looking like the hitter he once was...and by once, we mean last year.   Oakland better hope he turns it around in a hurry if they hope to have a chance to hang with the resurgent Rangers and always dangerous Angels in the AL West race. 

Our prognosis: health and/or swing issues are preventing Holliday from getting a good whack at the ball.  He's getting underneath balls instead of driving them, resulting in a massive dropoff in his slash stats.  Or, maybe moving to Oakland's stadium - which doesn't just neutralize home runs, but also has a huge foul ground, causing more catchable popups - is just turning more of his line drives into fly ball outs.  If nothing else, the plate discipline is still there, so if he can somehow salvage his power, he can be a viable force again.  More balls need to fall in, and his line drive rate will have to return to his career mean, but we're getting to the point in the season where significant, prolonged slumps have actual meaning instead of being functions of a small sample size.  

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