When the Yankees signed Matt Holliday back in December, the team had reasons for optimism. Holliday would provide veteran leadership in a quasi-rebuilding year, and perhaps lengthen the lineup. There were no lofty expectations that typically come with free agent contracts. In theory, he only had to be better than the 2016 version of Alex Rodriguez, not exactly a difficult task.
Two months into the 2017 season, however, and Holliday is routinely batting cleanup for a first place team. He’s hitting .271/.361/.525 with 12 home runs across 205 plate appearances. That works out to a 137 wRC+, making Holliday one of the most productive designated hitters in the league. As far as the team goes, his 37 RBI sit second only to Aaron Judge. That’s pretty good company.
Holliday also looks the best he has in years. During spring training he mentioned how he wanted to lift the ball in the air more frequently. So far he’s done just that.
He’s cut down on his groundball rate and increased his fly ball percentage. Fly balls get a bad reputation for being easy outs. The more you hit, though, the more likely they are to leave the park. That’s what’s going on with Holliday, as his HR/FB rate has spiked this season.
At first glance, one would think that Yankee Stadium had something to do with that. Even though he’s a right-handed batter, it figures that a few of his opposite-field fly balls would clear the short porch. That isn’t the case, however, as most of his home runs have been shots.
Almost every part of his offense has been successful so far. There are very few areas of concern when it comes to Holliday. Earlier this season, I wrote about his decline in contact percentage. He’s striking out a lot, but that isn’t detracting from his game. In fact, it might explain some of his success.
Matt Holliday's K's have jumped massively: 16.7% to 28.4%.— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) June 5, 2017
Matt Hollday's value is up massively: 109 wRC+ to 138 wRC+.
It appears that Holliday has embraced his role as a designated hitter, a middle of the lineup slugger. He’s not concerned with striking out, nor with making outs in the air. He steps to the plate with the goal of inflicting as much damage as possible. So far, this plan has worked out brilliantly for the Yankees.
Some of the success might come from the fact that Holliday’s finally healthy. He battled injuries the last few seasons. A quad strain and a broken thumb limited him to just 183 games from 2015 - 2016. Perhaps health played just as much a role in his bounce-back as did a change in approach. Regardless of what’s driving his resurgence, the Yankees are reaping the benefits.
Off the field, Holliday fits right in on the team. He’s taken on a mentorship role for budding stars like Judge and Gary Sanchez. "I just pick his brain on what he does," Judge told Brendan Kuty of NJ.com. Plus, he seems to have struck a friendship with Brett Gardner. Their ribbing and playful competition have been fun to follow as the season unfolds. In some ways it feels like Holliday’s been with the Yankees for ages, as if he was meant to play for New York. That’s the indicator of a great free agent signing.
It’s still too early to tell if Holliday can sustain his success. He’s the oldest player on the Yankees’ roster, and as mentioned earlier, injury prone of late. Plus, there’s no guarantee that he continues to outproduce his declining contact rate. For now, though, Holliday’s a dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup. He’s reportedly great in the clubhouse, and a real pleasure to watch. In many ways, Holliday has exceeded all expectations for the Yankees. He just might be the steal of the 2016 - 2017 free agent class.