My favorite single moment from this season is the Matt Holliday walkoff home run against Baltimore on April 28. Surely we all remember the unbelievable comeback from being down 9-1 to win 14-11:
Aside from his extra-inning heroics, it’s been pretty easy to overlook Holliday’s season to this point. With an MVP performance from Aaron Judge and 4 other All-Stars, you’d be forgiven for losing the 37-year-old DH in the shuffle. With Holliday due to return Friday night from a bout with Epstein-barr virus, you should know he’s having one of the best seasons possible from a player his age.
This is every player-season from a player aged 35 and over, going back to 2012, ranked by total offensive output, or wRC+. Obviously, the majority of these points are primarily DHs, so pure offensive production, rather than WAR, is the best way to compare them. There are 137 player-seasons that fit this criteria, which is a decent sample size.
That red dot is Matt Holliday’s 2017 season. The median wRC+ for this distribution is 97, or slightly below league average. Matt Holliday has posted a 132, good enough for the 90th percentile of this distribution. All of a sudden, the $13 million man looks like one of Brian Cashman’s best signings to date.
More impressive than the raw numbers is the company Holliday is keeping with his 2017 production. Of the 11 seasons better than Holliday’s, 7 belong to David Ortiz and Nelson Cruz, the twin gold standards of productive older players.
So how is Matt Holliday doing it? After 2016 was his worst season in a decade, what’s been the engine of his 2017 success? The same two tools used to project every rookie: getting on base, and hitting for power.
Using the same distribution as before, take a look at the best BB% and ISO among player-seasons over age 35:
Again, our red dots are Matt Holliday’s 2017. He’s having a top 10 season in both walk rate and isolated power, and his company in the latter is again dominated by multiple Ortiz seasons.
The next question is, how sustainable is this success?
I’m willing to bet that, all told, a 132 wRC+ is pretty sustainable. We’ve seen that aging players are able to reach base at a high level, simply because plate discipline doesn’t regress with age. Jose Bautista is a ready example of this. In Holliday’s case, he’s posted his lowest O-Swing% since his pre-Cardinals days, meaning he’s chasing fewer bad pitches than ever before. He’s also seen more total strikes than ever before, which is why as long as he keeps laying off bad pitches, his walk rate shouldn’t change too dramatically.
The power is a separate issue. We do know that power tends to regress as players age, but so far that problem hasn’t been an issue for Holliday. His last 10 full seasons have seen him reach the 20 home run plateau, and with 15 this season it’s easy to imagine him keeping that streak alive. Add to that the Yankees playing in the AL East, and the power output should be sustained through the rest of the season.
The final piece to Holliday’s sustainability is that his time off was illness-based, not injury-based. We’ve seen players come back from injury before, and nurse or favor the injured body part, or trigger a second injury in the same location. After battling Epstein-barr virus, the human body is usually immune to the most common manifestations of the virus (like mono), and so we should be able to count on Holliday’s health going forward.
Matt Holliday is having a spectacular season, and will be a free agent at the end of the season. Wherever he ends up at the end of 2017, you can probably count on the meantime being something special.