What’s up with Matt Holliday?

It seems that pitching has been such an issue for the St. Louis Cardinals this season that when hitting has been an issue, it’s just quietly faded into the background by comparison. Between injuries and ineffectiveness, the Cardinals have had nine different rookie pitchers on their roster this season. Such has not been an issue for the offense at this point which has really seen only Matt Adams spend time on the DL this season.

Because of that, and because the Cardinals keep winning, Matt Holliday‘s start to the season has been kept out of the eye of baseball fans. But he’s struggling to start the season, so what is up with Matt Holliday?

Through June 2nd, Matt Holliday is hitting .244 over the team’s first 56 games. That is a whole 66 points lower than his career average. It is by far the worst start of his career. In now 10 major league seasons, Holliday has a batting average under .300 at the 56 game mark for just the fourth time. His previous worst was .271, which came last year, and then .272, which came in his rookie year.

So how did he do in the final two-thirds of the season when he’s started this poorly? Last year, Holliday hit .310/.393/.520 with 17 HRs through the remainder of the season. In 2009, the year he was dealt to the Cardinals, he hit .330/.400/.545 with 16 HR through the end of the season. And in his rookie year of 2004, Holliday hit .302/.354/.479 with 6 HR down the stretch.

When looking at the numbers, Holliday has really been the face for the enigma that has been the Cardinals’ offense which has disappeared when there is nobody on base, but if you put someone in scoring position, they light up. Holliday sports a .362 (17-for-47) batting average with runners in scoring position and a .356 (31-for-97) batting average with men on base, but just .151 (16-for-106) when the bases are empty. So much for being “un-clutch?”

Some statistics do just stand out when you look through his. He is striking out at almost a career low 14.2% rate. The only year he had fewer was in 2010 when he struck out just 13.8% of the time, which means he’s getting a lot more contact with the ball this season. That in turn, combined with a low batting average, is a recipe for a poor BABIP. His career BABIP is .341, while this year’s is just .252, the only year of his career that is below .330.

He’s also generating more ground balls, with a 1.50 GB/FB rate, which is the highest in his career since his first two seasons with the Rockies where he posted a 1.51 GB/FB rate. His career average is 1.29.

Holliday has also seen an increase in the number of sinkers and sliders he has faced. According to PITCHf/x, he saw 10.9% sinkers in 2012, to now 14.6% this season. That is the highest percentage of sliders he’s seen since 2007 for when PITCHf/x data became available. Usually he hits the sinker well, accumulating a 15.0 runs above average on sinkers, and that has dropped to just 0.0 this year. His ability against the slider has also taken a tumble as well, he posted a 21.8 runs above average off the slider over the previous three seasons, but it stands at -3.3 this year so far.

When you look at his plate discipline, according to PITCHf/x, he is seeing the most pitches in the strike zone in his entire time as a Cardinal at 76.9%. He faced just 68.3% last season. He’s being more aggressive at swinging too, up to swinging at 50.8% of pitches, which makes sense if he’s seeing more pitches in the strike zone, up from 47.3% over the last three seasons. This has lead to an increase contact rate of 82.8% on all swings, but 71.4% rate on all swings on pitches outside the strike zone, up from 65.0% last season.

That’s a lot of data to consider and you aren’t ever going to really pinpoint the cause of an issue by simply looking at statistics. There is just too much information that comes through with individual circumstances. But given that he’s getting more pitches around the strike zone I think we’re seeing a situation like we saw with Albert Pujols in the #3 hole after the arrival of Holliday. Pujols began swinging more and his walk rate began to tumble. Why? He had protection and he was seeing more pitches around the strike zone as a result.

With a year under his belt and a five year contract signed, Allen Craig is generating more and more protection for Holliday, especially when Craig is hitting .314 behind him while Holliday is still at .244. As a result, Holliday is seeing more pitches around the strike zone, so he has to swing more often and less ability to work the count to get pitches in his favor. More swings equal more balls hit and not all of them are going to do what you want them to do.

While I wholly despise the use of BABIP being used to compare someone to the benchmark of .300 and conclude that they have been lucky or unlucky, I do think it’s an excellent tool to use to compare a player to himself in this sort of situation. When your career BABIP is over .340 and your current one is .252, I think it is safe to conclude that you’ve been mostly unlucky. He will turn those numbers around because balls will eventually start finding holes.

If it isn’t broken don’t break it, but it would be interesting to see what would change if Holliday and Craig were swapped in the lineup, or even slid forward a spot with Carlos Beltran hitting fourth. I’ve always felt that Holliday made a better #2 hitter than #3 hitter, especially if you have the depth to put equal or better hitters in the #3 and #4 spots of the lineup. We have that with Craig and Beltran. So you’d be guaranteeing two heavy hitters in behind Matt Carpenter‘s team leading .394 on base percentage.

Holliday has been putting balls in play, and as I like to say, that’s when baseball happens. It’s only a matter of time before he starts turning it around.