Baseball: Signing Matt Holliday a big mistake?

By Paul Hurst

Matt Holliday

The St Louis Cardinals last week signed Matt Holliday to a seven-year, $120m contract. After all the speculation about a move to the New York Mets, Holliday opted to stay with in St Louis, signing by far the biggest deal to happen this winter. Have the Cardinals made a big mistake?

There is no question that Holliday is a good player. Though he struggled during his stint in Oakland last season, he tore up the league following his July move to St Louis, hitting .353 with 13 home runs in 63 games. In six major league seasons, he’s hitting at a .318 clip, with an average of 29 home runs a season.

The key concern with Holliday is that he spent the first five of those seasons playing his home games in Denver, with the Colorado Rockies. Coors Field is renowned as being the best ballpark in baseball for hitters. The high elevation in Denver means that balls travel further, and the large outfield is also conducive to more extra-base hits. The effect is less pronounced since the team began humidifying game balls in 2002, however Baseball Prospectus still ranks Coors Field as the best hitters park in America.

When we take a look at Holliday’s home and away splits over his career, there is certainly some cause for concern. Over his career, his batting average on the road is almost 70 points lower than his average at home. Playing at home, he averages a home run every 16.5 at-bats. Away from home, that figure is once every 30.5 at-bats.

Looking at Relative OPS is a good method for comparing a hitter’s performance in different situations — against left-handers/right-handers, for example, or in this case home/away. A figure greater than 100 shows a better performance than their overall figures, less than 100, a worse performance. Here’s a sample of some of today’s top hitters (home/away);

Mark Teixera – 110 / 90
Alex Rodriguez – 104 / 96
Manny Ramirez – 102 / 98
Ryan Howard – 101 / 99
Prince Fielder – 101 / 99
Albert Pujols – 101 / 99

Holliday comes in with a huge differential of 125 / 74. An interesting similarity can be seen when we look at his former team-mate Todd Helton, who has spent his entire career in Colorado – he comes in at 120 / 79. By comparison, Padres first-basemen Adrian Gonzalez, playing home games at notoriously pitcher friendly PETCO Park, comes in at 85 / 114 — putting up significantly better numbers away from home.

This is not to say Holliday is not a good player, because he is, and the Cardinals are obviously happy enough with what they saw of him in the second half of last season. However, Holliday and his agent, Scott Boras, seem to have got everything they wanted from St Louis — including a full no-trade clause — despite there being no other serious bidders for his services.

Holliday will do a good job for the Cardinals. Whether he is going to be worth the money that they’re paying him over the life of the contract is another story. What is of equal concern is the length of the deal. Holliday turns 30 this week. Going into the final year of the contract, he will be 37 years old. In the post-steroids era, we know players, in particular hitters, aren’t going to have the longevity that we’ve seen in recent years.

What must certainly be of concern to Cardinals GM John Mozeliak is the thought of paying Holliday $17m in 2016, even if they do get good production out of him for the next three or four, possibly five seasons. The size of this contract (the largest in franchise history, and 14th largest in MLB history) becomes even more of a worry, if it impacts on their ability to re-sign Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and most of all, Albert Pujols.

The Cardinals must have some confidence that they will be able to retain Pujols, because the big market teams will be moving heaven and earth to get him if he goes to free agency. If the Cardinals aren’t willing, or able, to do the same, this contract handed out to Holliday may well be viewed as a huge mistake in the years to come.

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