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The curious case of Matt Holliday’s contact percentage

The Yankees’ designated hitter has seen his contact rate drop in the early going. Is there reason for concern?

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Holliday looks like an intimidating hitter. He has a batting stance that projects power and confidence. His swing is explosive. His forearms, goodness, those could belong to a professional wrestler. When Holliday steps up to the plate, you get the feeling that he could send any pitch into orbit.

For most of his career, Holliday has done just that. Prior to joining the Yankees, he punished pitchers to the tune of a 137 wRC+. That places him among the top 20 batters from 2004 through 2016. Talk about lofty company. Have the Yankees seen this type of production from their designated hitter in the early going? The answer is yes and no.

Through 13 games with the Yankees, Holliday has managed a .227/.382/.409 batting line with a pair of home runs. That works out to a 131 wRC+, almost perfectly in line with his career norms. A deeper dive, however, reveals some interesting trends. Most notably, Holliday isn’t making as much contact as he normally does.

At present, the Yankees’ designated hitter owns a 66% contact rate. That falls well below his career average of 78.9%. While it remains important to remember that it’s only April, sample sizes for plate discipline stabilize much faster than than other measurements. After 50+ plate appearances, it’s fair to say that this is unusual.

There are a few factors driving this decrease in contact percentage. Most obviously, Holliday isn’t swinging the bat as often as he used to. That includes pitches both in and out of the strike zone.

In the above table, O-Swing% represents his aptitude to swing at pitches outside of the zone. Z-Swing% measures the same, but with pitches inside the strike zone instead. Compared to recent seasons, Holliday’s off to a fairly passive start. You can’t make contact if you don’t swing the bat.

On the flip side, when Holliday has been swinging this season, he’s been more prone to come up empty. His swinging strike rate currently stands at 13.5%. That’s notably above his 10.4% career average. In particular, he’s missing on pitches down in the zone.

The above image indicates pitch location for each of Holliday’s 34 swinging strikes in 2017. More than half of them belong in the lower portion of the strike zone, or well below it. He’s also coming up empty on pitches away, the ones off of the plate. Those whiffs will eat away at anyone’s contact percentage, especially during the early stages of the season.

With a sufficient explanation for why Holliday’s contact percentage is at such low levels, it makes sense to turn to a more relevant question: should the Yankees be concerned? At present, I would say no. When Holliday does connect, it usually produces quality results. His soft contact rate is right in line with his career norms and his medium contact percentage is above his traditional output. Holliday’s hard contact rate might currently be down, but there are indications he’s beginning to hit the ball with more authority.

Exhibit A:

His three run home run against Derek Holland, which went for 459 feet. That will play just fine.

Holliday’s working with some intriguing peripherals in the early going. He’s not making as much contact as one would expect, but when he does, it’s well-struck. The Yankees will take that at this point in his career. That’s especially true when considering how deep the club’s lineup appears. Holliday doesn’t have to carry the team. He just needs to make it count when he does connect. All signs point to that continuing.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.