Matt Holliday is one of the best players in baseball. Joey Votto currently has a so-slight-it-is-meaningless lead in Wins Above Replacement among National League players over Holliday despite Holliday missing time at the beginning of the season recovering from an appendectomy. Holliday (201) is second only to his teammate Lance Berkman in wRC+ (213), and plays superior defense to Berkman.
Holliday’s excellence isn’t a recent development. From 2007 to the present, Holliday has accumulated more WAR (27.6) than any other position players in baseball other than acknowledged-best-in-the-business Albert Pujols (34.3) and the similarly underrated Chase Utley (28.6). Of course, there is a distinction between true talent and observed performance, and the uncertainty involved, e.g., with defensive metrics means that we don’t know “for sure” where Holliday ranks, but you get the idea. It is easy enough to see how good Holliday has been and continues simply by looking at his player page. He’s been just about as good or better than Carl Crawford each of the last few years; Crawford has been an excellent player (and very probably still is, despite his dreadful start in Boston), yet, unless I missed it, despite the big eventual payday, Holliday’s free agency did not receive the hype that Crawford’s did. Indeed, relative to his peers-in-performance, Holliday has not received much national attention lately. Why might that be?
One simple suggestion would be that he has not played in a “big market,” spending the first years of his career in Colorado, part of a season in Oakland, then getting the big contract in Midwestern St. Louis. Location probably has something to do with it, and, as Bill James has pointed out, players that move from team-to-team tend to get less recognition. However, I think we can point to more specific issues in Holliday’s case.
One likely factor is a lingering perception that he is merely a “product of Coors field.” This topic could be a whole series of posts in itself. Suffice it to say that I eagerly await the moment when some player’s Hall of Fame case gets torpedoed because Jeff Pearlman overheard someone say that that player once spent half a season playing for the Rockies. Yes, Holliday had what will probably end up being the best season of his career with the Rockies in 2007, a season in which they made their surprising run to the World Series. Holliday actually came in second in the National League MVP voting that season, which wouldn’t have been so bad if he had lost to David Wright, Albert Pujols, Chipper Jones, or Chase Utley rather than Jimmy Rollins. That’s yet another story. However, even after adjusting for the relative value of runs in Coors, Holliday still had one of the best seasons in baseball.
Many will want to point out that after being traded to Oakland before the 2009 season, he hit “badly,” which thus shows that he was previously living off his home park. While he didn’t reach his earlier standards, he hardly hit “badly,” unless .286/.376/.454 (125 wRC+) in a severe pitcher’s park is bad. Moreover, even 400 PA is only a partial season. If you want to look at partial seasons as having meaning for evaluating a player, Holliday killed the ball for the rest of the year after his trade to St. Louis, hitting .353/.419/.604 in another pitcher’s park, for a 164 wRC+ that would be the best season of his career.
The sample size of a partial season aside, one might make a case on the difference between the quality of pitching in the National and American Leagues, but it isn’t that big, and it would not explain why Holliday hasn’t received the recognition of other NL players. Nonetheless, the Oakland interlude probably fed into the myth that Holliday is a “Coors product,” despite the fact that he’s crushed the ball ever since. But even if the raw numbers have not been quite as impressive, he’s been in a pitchers park, and the overall run environment in baseball has also been down.
Another factor may be that Holliday has been overshadowed by his teammates. In this way, Holliday resembles fellow underrated player Chase Utley (I thought about titling this piece “Holliday is the New Utley,” but went for the pure cheese instead), who has been overshadowed in the past by good-but-not-as-good-as-him teammates Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins (I suspect being a second baseman has also effected Utley’s relative lack of recognition, but that’s another post). In St. Louis, Holliday has been overshadowed by
Pete Sampras Tim Duncan Albert Pujols and probably Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, as well. Everyone’s Favorite Genius Tony LaRussa probably takes up his share of the attention as well. In Colorado, while Holliday’s second-place MVP finish in 2007 shows that at one point he was getting some love, it was probably also mitigated by the good seasons from longtime Rockie Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki‘s tremendous rookie year. As mentioned above, moving on from Colorado has probably weakened the identification of Holliday with that World Series run in the minds of some. These reasons are more understandable than the obsession with Coors field, if no more fair to Holliday.
There might be other factors. Holliday’s gaffe in the 2009 playoffs may have overshadowed the fact that he’s generally considered to be a pretty good fielder. I can’t recall Holliday ever making much of a big deal in the press or saying anything outlandish. He doesn’t strike me as particularly quotable (correct me on this if I’m wrong). If he wants more attention he could try something like one of the following: take up an addiction then overcome it to much public fanfare, get into fights with umpires, be quite vocal about his religious beliefs, or say that he doesn’t believe that Bud Selig is a U.S. citizen. All gold. There’s always the chance that Tony LaRussa will take an irrational disliking to him. It worked for Scott Rolen and Adam Kennedy! Then again, maybe Holliday doesn’t want more attention, and that’s the issue.
Of course, that’s not the kind of attention I’m talking about. And really, it doesn’t matter. Matt Holliday is one of the better players in baseball, and I think most would acknowledge that after just a bit of reflection. I’m just surprised that more people aren’t talking about it.