The Yankees signed Matt Holliday on Sunday night, ensuring they wouldn't go another offseason without inking a major-league free agent. The terms of one year and $13 million are reasonable, and the fit makes sense. Holliday will take at-bats in the corner outfield, at first base, and DH (primarily the latter), and provide another veteran voice for the Yankees' young, growing players.
Of course, Holliday is old. Entering his age-37 season, Holliday has been on the decline for the past couple years. His wRC+ dropped from 132 in 2014 to 124 in 2015, and 109 in 2016. After recording at least 2.3 rWAR every year from 2005 to 2014, and recording over 40 rWAR during that span, Holliday has been worth a total of just 1.1 rWAR across the past two seasons.
Holliday has never been an asset in the field, so the bulk of his decline has come at the plate. He still had pop last season, smashing 20 home runs in 110 games, but his on-base skills suffered. His career low .322 OBP likely stemmed from his lowest walk rate (8.2%) in a decade, and the lowest BABIP (.253) of his career.
None of this paints the picture of a player who seems likely to buck the trend and stop his decline, but that might be selling Holliday short. For one, early projections like his odds of bouncing back, as Steamer currently forecasts Holliday for a strong .271/.357/.469 slash line and a 122 wRC+. Digging deeper into Holliday's performance, it's not too hard to see why he has a real chance to rebound.
First, Holliday seems to have retained the most basic skills of a successful hitter. It would be troubling if Holliday's statistical decline was accompanied by, say, a clear deterioration in his contact skills, but Holliday's swinging strike rate (9.2%) was lower than his career average, and his contact rate of 80.2% was eminently solid. Plus, Holliday's quality of contact seemed to fly in the face of his plummeting BABIP, as he ran an excellent 38.5% hard contact rate last season (data courtesy of F\FanGraphs).
That propensity for hitting the ball hard even as he ages might be Holliday's best hope for a comeback season as a Yankee. It feels too easy to look at Holliday's 2016 BABIP, which was 80 points lower than his (partially Coors Field inflated) career mark, and assume that he was particularly unlucky, but that just might be the case. Here's Holliday's OBP/SLG and wRC+ last season on different types of batted balls, compared to the league averages:
|Holliday||.199/.205, 3 wRC+||.636/.818, 303 wRC+||.313/.973, 232 wRC+|
|League Average||.239/.258, 28 wRC+||.684/.900, 340 wRC+||.235/.715, 139 wRC+|
Holliday fared better than most on fly balls, but on line drives and ground balls, his numbers were uncharacteristically low. That might make more sense if Holliday suddenly lost the ability to hit the ball hard, but Statcast data corroborates what we saw earlier in his hard contact rate: Holliday is still capable of stinging the ball.
Of all hitters with at least 100 batted ball events, Holliday ranked third with an average exit velocity of 94.7 mph according to Statcast. He struck groundballs at an average velocity of 94.1 mph, and balls in the air at an average velocity of 96.9. Exit velocity is far from everything (Aaron Judge, for example, posted an average velocity of 95.5 mph and a 63 wRC+), but it's abundantly clear that Holliday was still able to make quality contact last year.
It's not all sunshine and roses, as all 37-year-old veterans simply have a chance of seeing a severe drop in performance at any time. Moreover, Holliday has had injury troubles recently. A recurring quadriceps ailment caused him to miss months in 2015, and he missed several weeks with a broken thumb last year, albeit one sustained on a hard-luck hit by pitch. Neither injury seems like the kind of chronic impairment that would consistently hamper a player into the future, but at his advanced age, Holliday's recent injury history is worth noting.
Regardless, in spite of the drop in his numbers, Holliday still has the appearance of a legitimate major league hitter. If Holliday continues to make contact at a solid rate and striking the ball with authority, as he did just last season, there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back for a solid year in New York. At just one year on a fair salary, this seems like a good bet for the Yankees to make. This isn't a major splash, but it does look the Yankees have succeeded in improving their outlook for 2017.