Matt Holliday, comparables and St. Louis’ $120 million bet

Matt Holliday is a good baseball player.  He hits for very good contact, he hits for good power and he has some patience and defensive value.  He’ll also likely have a regression at some point in his Cardinals career and there’s an outside chance it gets ugly.

The St. Louis Cardinals rewarded him this week, paying him $120 million for the next seven years of service–a good portion of the money will be deferred, without interest, until 2029. So over time, it’ll actually be worth less than 120 million. But that’s still a lot of money and a lot of years.

Don’t get me wrong, Holliday is a very good player. But his peak isn’t that great–take away the park and RBIs and it’s very good, but not impressive.  Plus, he’s half-way through his prime and no one knows how his decline is going to go.  Add in that Jason Bay–a player with a lower batting average, but similar OBP and relatively close power numbers who also benefitted from a hitter’s park for a few years–received a five-year, $80 million deal, nobody was bidding against the Cardinals for Holliday and the contract has a full no-trade clause and this looks considerably worse.

Fangraphs makes some good points about his UZR/150 and WAR and Holliday’s decline, though it seems to suggest his decline will come at a steady, gradual pace, which is … kind. Plus, his WAR and UZR/150 would be more important if he weren’t playing one of the least defensively important postion in the sport.

But let’s ignore the worst case scenario–the possibility of injuries or that Holliday’s had more good luck than bad over the last five years–what’s the best possible case?  That he performs well above-average for at least three or four years and above-average all seven years?

Player A: .323 BA/.390 OBP/ 35-45 HR per season/30-45 doubles per season

Player B: .318 BA/.387 OBP/25-35 HR per season/40-50 doubles per season

Guess which player is which.

Player A is Vlad Guerrero before signing with the Angels in 2004, player B is Matt Holliday as of last year.  Guerrero was 29 when he signed with the Angels, Holliday will be 30 at the start of the season. Not that that’s bad, but that’s one less year of his prime you’re getting, and replaced with two or maybe three years in his late 30s, compared to Vlad’s six-year deal.

As with all long contracts, it won’t be bad now or even three years from now.  It’s in years five, six and seven.  If there’s a prospect coming up through the minors that can’t play a position, that hole is filled until 2016, unless he’s so bad the team benches him.  Or unless first base is open and the team didn’t sign Pujols, in which case shame on them.  St. Louis doesn’t have a DH spot to fiddle around with, either.

Vlad right now is entering a horrible decline. Holliday’s career path probably won’t trace Vlad’s–Vlad’s OBP was boosted because of intentional walks, his slugging was way higher and a few other things are off–but it’s a very rare breed of player that plays well through his mid- to late-30s.

I’m not King of Comparables, but here are players with similar years to Holliday’s age 27-29 years: Vlad, Mike Piazza, George Brett, Albert Belle and Bernie Williams.  And here’s a bit more encouragement.  Piazza and Brett had very good declines and performed above average into age 38, playing into age 40.  But Piazza and Brett had OPS+s (167 and 163) significantly better.  So after adjusting for era and park, Brett and Piazza were flat out better hitters.

Belle and Williams, however, saw precipitous declines after 33 and 34 respectively and retired.  Or, at least in Bernie’s case, should have.  Belle had the highest peak of them all (174 OPS+) and may have fallen due to the “survivor bias” and Williams the second lowest (145, ahead of Holliday).

So this contract was a gamble by St. Louis.  And basically they’re betting $120 million that Holliday performs well above-average into age 37–that he’ll be a borderline Hall of Famer.

Personally, I don’t know what to make of him.  He’s very disciplined about his body and work outs.  The IsoD is decent and that correlates well with longevity.  He’s a great hitter, but not elite.  To think he’ll be above-average for the duration of his contract in the easiest position to fill on the field is optimistic, to put it kindly.  Not to mention he has a complete no trade clause.

I hope the best for Holliday, but his new contract seems incredible short-sighted by the St. Louis front-office and they’re going to be stuck together for a long time.

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Filed under Comparables, Free agent signings, MLB

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