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May 16, 2007

Player Profile

Matt Holliday

by Marc Normandin

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Matt Holliday was a highly touted prospect in the Rockies organization after a few seasons in the low minors, but struggles and inconsistency led to his being lowered in prospect lists, and prompted the disbelief that he would ever fulfill his potential. Holliday has seen his numbers improve each season since his arrival in the majors though, culminating with a 2006 season that saw him finish 21st in MLB in VORP, with an overall line of .329/.409/.556. But how real is the performance we've seen from Holliday over the past year and two months?

Matthew Thomas Holliday attended Stillwater High School in Oklahoma before the Colorado Rockies selected him in the seventh round of the 1998 amateur entry-draft. He was a highly touted quarterback as well, which led the Rockies to splurge on their pick with a signing bonus offer of $840,000, the most ever for a seventh-rounder. Holliday was a second-team High School All-American infielder during his last season at Stillwater, and seemed to have no problems adjusting to professional baseball during his debut:

Year Team           AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
1998 AzRockies(Rk) 117  .342/.419/.521   25%  .179    5    11.4%  15.9%
1999 Asheville(A)  444  .264/.346/.435   38%  .171   28    10.7%  23.3%

Holliday's half-season for the Arizona League Rockies was fueled by a .385 BABIP, although it's still a quality season even after properly adjusting for that. His 1999 season for Single-A Asheville, with its .324 BABIP, gives you a solid idea of what Holliday's 1998 should have looked like, although his batting average is a bit lower. Quality power, some patience, and a penchant for striking out often seemed to be Holliday's game immediately out of high school, but the numbers are impressive for an 18-19 year old who was focusing on two sports mere months earlier.

Year Team         AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2000 Salem(A+)   460  .274/.335/.389   29%  .114   30    8.4%  14.5%

The bad news was that Holliday's patience dropped by a few percentage points, and his power took a nosedive. The good news was that his BABIP was below the league average at just .314, and that he was going to get away from being an infielder-Holliday committed 32 errors at third base in 2000-and his production was slowed by an elbow injury that required surgery. Baseball America rated Holliday the tenth best prospect in the then loaded Rockies organization:

Holliday comes from a baseball family. His father Tom is the head coach at Oklahoma State, his uncle David scouts for the Rockies and his brother Josh is a first baseman in the Blue Jays system…Holliday's bat is the key to his future. His size, bat speed, and swing equate to big league power, and he has a good understanding of hitting…his future likely will be in left field, where he has the power to be an impact player. He's not a burner, but he does have a feel for the game and it shouldn't take long for him to get comfortable in the outfield. He'll improve at the plate if he develops a little more discipline.

Prior to that season, the Rockies locked Holliday up to a six-year contract that guaranteed him at least $700,000 before incentives in order to keep him from leaving for Oklahoma State on a football scholarship. The bright spot from his shortened 2001 campaign was his AB/HR, which dropped to 15.9; his power seemed to have returned after its brief vacation the previous year. Holliday jumped to Double-A Carolina for his age-22 season, and the results were less than satisfactory:

Year Team           AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2002 Carolina(2A)  463  .276/.375/.391   24%  .115   21   12.4%  18.9%

His increase in plate discipline was a plus, and he managed to keep his strikeouts down in comparison to his others year of plus patience. The power just was not there though, which is a problem when you have converted to left field, and where the most important attributes you can bring to the job are an ability to hit the ball often and far. Baseball America dropped Holliday to #16 on their organizational prospect lists heading into 2003:

The wait…continues for Holliday to transform his power potential into reality. He has hit only 49 homeruns in 478 pro games. His power comes through in batting practice, but he needs to keep his swing short and use his hands more…Matt has the strength to hit at least 30 homers a season. He has come a long way in converting from third base to left field, and has built up his arm strength to above-average for left field. He has good basestealing instincts despite ordinary speed.

The following season would not be Holliday's year either, as he once again failed to crack a .400 slugging percentage while repeating Double-A:

Year Team         AB  AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2003 Tulsa(2A)   522 .253/.313/.395   34%  .142   33    7.4%  12.8%

Holliday was keeping his strikeouts down, and his walk rate would have been more acceptable if he had more hits, but he didn't, again. His .275 BABIP was well below the league average for Double-A, and even lower when you consider he was in the high-offense Texas League (and when you consider he was repeating the level). Despite his struggles, Holliday moved up in the Rockies organizational prospect list to #9 thanks to a strong showing at the end of the season, as well as an excellent stint in the Arizona Fall League. Baseball America seemed to know what his trouble at the plate with power was, saying "(to) unlock his power in games, Holliday needs to get his hands in a cocked position so he's ready to hit more quickly." Baseball Prospectus 2004 was not quite as optimistic in regards to Holliday's chances:

The upper levels of the organization are still pretty thin in terms of prospects, so Holliday still gets mentioned. Outfield corners who can't slug .400 should get to be non-prospects pretty quickly, but a nice AFL gave people a continuing excuse to call Holliday a talent. As much as you like to see people move up to Double-A early on in their careers, Holliday hasn't made much progress since leaving A-ball, or since blowing out his elbow in 2001. A third weak year at the plate should get him booted from the 40-man roster.

I have the benefit of hindsight in these profiles, but sometimes a comment or scouting report comes along that just doesn't do a player the justice they probably deserve based on their previous performance or potential, or they get a bit too optimistic and crazy based off of one half-season. Our own Kevin Goldstein holds that numbers for minor leaguers aren't everything, and in Holliday's case, this was certainly true. He did have a significant amount of power potential that he was having trouble harnessing, and he was unlucky batting average-wise in 2003. If you normalized his BABIP to be around the league average, he would have hit about 40 points higher in all three categories, which is not exactly awe-inspiring, but is a significant improvement on a .395 slugging percentage. The guy was coming off a few serious injuries that hindered his development, and he had turned himself into a solid defender as well as a useful baserunner for his size. Holliday may have been around for a few years, but he was still young-only 24-and just about to hit Triple-A. That comment was overly pessimistic, a little too derisive, and failed to appreciate Holliday's potential.

After a 22 at-bat stint at Colorado Springs where Holliday slugged .864, the Rockies called him up and gave him 400 major league at-bats:

Year Team           AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B   BB%   K%
2004 Colorado(MLB) 400  .290/.349/.488   41%  .198   34    7.2%  21.5%

Holliday jumped to the majors and had himself a fine rookie season, collecting 48 extra-base hits and garnering fifth place in the Jackie Robinson Award vote. Much of the damage came against right-handers, who Holliday smacked around to the tune of .307/.355/.515, and he also hit much better at Coors: .338/.406/.603 versus .240/.287/.367 with just four homers on the road. He slugged .675 in both April and September, bookending the campaign with above-average production. There were holes in the season-the Coors effect, for one-but it was good to see Holliday start to put up some numbers.

Having ended his struggles at the plate, Baseball Prospectus 2005 was more optimistic about Holliday's chances than the previous year's edition:

Holliday performed way above what could have been reasonably expected of him given his minor league numbers. He hit .253 in Tulsa in 2003, then .290 in Colorado in 2004. He hit for more power, played better defense, and pretty much just played about 2/3 of a season of lights-out baseball before hurting his elbow. Gotta love that. (The lights-out ball, not the elbow injury.) Is he likely to keep it up? It's possible. Twenty-year-olds have been known to take a big step forward and actually hang onto their gains. He's expected to be healthy, so hopefully he'll continue to progress.

The road numbers were an obvious source of concern, but the gap would decrease somewhat in 2005, his second full season in the majors, and continue to decrease in 2006:

Year Team            AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%   ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2005 Colorado(MLB)  479  .307/.361/.505  34%   .198   31    7.0%  16.5%
2006 Colorado(MLB)  602  .326/.387/.586  43%   .260   50    7.2%  18.3%
2007 Colorado(MLB)  157  .357/.395/.624  43%   .267   16    5.4%  21.0%

In 2006, Holliday exploded and slugged close to .600-he even managed to hit .280/.333/.485 on the road, which is more than acceptable when your home line is .373/.440/.692, Coors effect or no Coors effect. Holliday has turned into the serious power threat that scouts envisioned during his younger days, smacking 34 homers in 2006-84 extra-base hits total-as well as eight long balls already in this young season. His comment in Baseball Prospectus 2007 describes his sudden development well:

After a slow April, Holliday hit .338/.407/.607 the rest of the way and edged Jason Bay for the highest VORP among NL left fielders. Holliday has now twice made significant improvements to his game over an offseason. Although he'll always have better offensive stats at Coors, his power travels everywhere, as evidenced by a notable September blast that cleared Dodger Stadium entirely. As the league has learned to fear him, Holliday has received a few more walks and been hit with almost twice as many pitches, but he remains an aggressive hitter who excels at squaring up the ball. In the field, he's still learning that the shortest route between two points is a straight line, but as long as he can hit 500-foot home runs, Holliday's in.

The Rockies stated that his 2004 improvement was a combination of an increase in size and confidence; it's possible that his ability to kill the ball at Coors helped Holliday relax enough to stop pressing, which in turn sped up the unlocking of his potential into realistic rather than hypothetical power. He has certainly improved as a hitter since then, making strides at home and on the road, and PECOTA is head over heels for him, projecting him to a .295-.298 EqA for the next five seasons.

Holliday has a significant amount of power, as some numbers from Hit Tracker can attest to:

     Avg True Dist  Avg Speed off Bat    Avg Std Dist   Avg Apex
----------------------------------------------------------------------
2006  416.1 ft         108.2 mph            392.0 ft       98.2
2007  411.8 ft         104.2 mph            376.6 ft       97.0

Holliday hit the longest homers hit at Dodger Stadium and Coors in 2006-the home run from the BP2K7 comment traveled 475 feet. He hits some incredibly lofty shots as well, but for the most part Holliday squares up on the ball and sends a screaming liner into the bleachers at 110 miles per hour:

Year P/PA   FB%   LINERD%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP  Dif.
2004  3.8   32.4%  18.7%  48.9%   8.8%  13.7%  .340   .307  -.033
2005  3.6   31.7%  20.5%  47.8%   8.6%  14.8%  .336   .325  -.011
2006  3.6   34.3%  21.0%  44.6%   6.5%  20.0%  .354   .330  -.024
2007  3.5   34.7%  21.0%  44.4%   0.0%  18.6%  .414   .330  -.084

Holliday outperforms his expected BABIP by a bit each year thanks to the Coors effect, although he has been luckier this year than most. That is not to say that he is having a bad season after adjusting; on average, he outperforms his eBABIP by about .023; change the .084 to .061 and say the missing portion is boosted BABIP that will come from Coors one way or the other, and Holliday should be around .296/.334/.563. The walk rate would probably be higher for Holliday if he wasn't in the middle of such a hot streak, which makes that adjusted figure even more impressive.

Holliday is in his age-27 season now, but PECOTA does not expect much if any decline through his age-31 season, and the Rockies have him locked up for $4.4 million this year after avoiding arbitration last winter. He's a big and athletic hitter but not a fast runner, and he's now displaying enough knowledge as a hitter to succeed past his peak; the Rockies would do themselves a favor by locking him up for a few years as soon as possible, considering a long-term deal with agent Scott Boras will cost them more later than if it were completed sooner. It took some time and a lot of growing pains, but Matt Holliday turned himself into an excellent offensive left fielder who should remain an important cog in the Rockies offense for a few years to come, despite the slow start to his professional career.

---

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc's other articles. You can find some of Marc's other work here.

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