When the Yankees signed Matt Holliday to a free agent contract last December, nobody knew what to expect. The veteran slugger was coming off several injury riddled years in St. Louis. Playing the full season at 37 years old, evaluators had a difficult time projecting Holliday’s role on the team. Most figured he was brought in to fill the leadership void left by the retirements of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.
Holliday did that, but he also hit the cover off the ball for the first few months of the season. Through June 24th, he hit to an impressive .262/.366/.511 batting line. His 133 wRC+ made him among the most productive designated hitters in the league. With 15 home runs, he proved a formidable threat in the lineup and offered protection for Aaron Judge. It was hard to imagine a better debut in pinstripes.
Then came the series in Oakland, where Holliday first experienced symptoms of Epstein-Barr Virus. The illness sidelined the Yankees designated hitter for nearly a month. Upon returning after the All-Star break, he’s looked entirely lost at the plate. Heading into Wednesday afternoon’s game, he posted a .151/.182/.219 triple-slash with a -1 wRC+ over 77 plate appearances. Of courses that’s a small sample size, but he looks cooked.
It’s one thing to point out how terribly Holliday has struggled. It’s far more interesting to ask why, and by extension, what the Yankees can do about it. The most notable underlying trend in this rough stretch has been Holliday’s inability to make hard contract. Outside of his game-tying home run against Craig Kimbrel, he’s failed to hit the ball with any authority.
His hard contact rate plummeted upon returning. He’s rolling over on pitches to the left side of the infield or hitting lazy fly balls. Yet this only peels one layer back on the Holliday puzzle. To get a better picture of his struggles, it makes sense to examine his swing.
I’ve selected two Holliday at-bats, both against right-handed pitchers, for our viewing. First, there’s a home run from June 18th:
Then a fielder’s choice on July 27th:
In the first clip, Holliday begins to drive his leg down once the ball is just out of the pitcher’s hand. In the second segment, he’s waiting for the ball to travel farther before dropping his front leg. These leg kicks are timing mechanisms, and that slight hesitancy can have dramatic results.
There’s also the issue of his bat plane. In June, it appears Holliday had a level swing. His bat cut straight through the zone. In the second clip, his bat drags down; it sinks. It almost appears as if he’s lunging at the ball. That likely explains the significant spike in his groundball rate. He hasn’t reported any lingering symptoms of the virus since returning, so it’s possible that the time off severely altered his swing.
That brings us to the most pressing question: What should the Yankees do about Holliday? At this point it’s clear that Joe Girardi can’t play him every day. He’s a blackhole in the lineup, a near automatic out. At his age, it’s not unheard of for player’s to just lose it. Think back to Alfonso Soriano in 2014. There comes a time when every batter runs out of steam, and it’s never pretty. This can’t be ruled out with Holliday, and the Yankees could opt to designate him for assignment.
If it turns out that his struggles stem from the illness, a trip to the phantom disabled list might make sense. There’s enough cover to make it sound legitimate and he could come back once rosters expand in September. This would also make sense with the impending return of Aaron Hicks and Greg Bird. If the Yankees want to keep his leadership in the clubhouse, this could be the avenue to pursue.
Whatever route they take, the message is clear. Holliday cannot be in the lineup every day. He’s the team’s weak link now. With a playoff push on their mind, the Yankees must start their best batters. Holliday’s not among them, and one way or another, his playing time should diminish. He’s a key reason for why the Bombers are in such a strong position now, and everyone respects that, but it’s time for a new designated hitter.