The most fascinating question for the Red Sox this offseason, at least in my opinion, is what they do at the DH position. It’s not nearly as interesting as the rotation questions they’ve had to answer in the past, but that is probably a good thing. My feeling — one that is purely based on my gut and no inside information — is that they’ll go the quiet route here. On Thursday, Ben talked about filling this hole and what exactly the team should be looking for in their new designated hitter.
As of this writing, it appears that Carlos Beltran is the early favorite to be signed, though there is obviously a lot of time for that to change. While he may be the favorite, he’s not necessarily my favorite cheap-ish candidate. That’s not to say I’d be overly upset about a Beltran signing (assuming a reasonable contract, of course), but I continue to find myself leaning towards Matt Holliday for the position.
Really, this has been my line of thinking since the Cardinals announced they’d be declining the option on the veteran’s deal and sending him into free agency. I’ll start by saying I don’t think this scenario is a particularly likely one for Boston, and not just because I believe they’re leaning towards Beltran. I haven’t heard of a single credible link between Holliday and the Red Sox, not even light ones. On top of that, there were rumors to come out today linking him with Colorado. We know rumors can’t really be trusted, but it’s all we have right now. Regardless, the Red Sox should take a long look at the seven-time All-Star.
I’ll start the case by first acknowledging the very real downsides of signing Holliday. For one thing he’s old. The 2017 season will be his 14th in the majors, and he’ll be turning 37 in January. David Ortiz taught us age isn’t always the kiss of death, but he was clearly the exception and not the rule. Secondly, Holliday has had some health issues in recent years, playing in just 183 games over the last two seasons. Then, there’s the lack of versatility. I’ll touch more on this one a little later. Finally, he’s coming off a down year.
All of these negatives are very real, but some of them may not be as much of a worry as they appear to be on the surface. The down year is the most obvious. Last season, over 426 plate appearances, Holliday hit .246/.322/.461 for a 109 wRC+, marking his worst offensive performance since his rookie season. Part of this downfall is almost definitely related to his age, and in turn, his health. At the same time, however, there are real reasons to believe he is in line for a bounce-back year.
The biggest and most obvious of those reasons is that he was hurt by an incredibly low .253 batting average on balls in play. This is low for just about any player in baseball, but it’s especially low for Holliday. Heading into 2016, he had a career BABIP of .338. He had fallen below the .300 mark just once in his career, and finished with a .298 mark in that year. He was also coming off a season in which he finished with a .335 BABIP. Although it’s always too easy to simply yell “REGRESSION” at something like this, there is certainly some coming Holliday’s way next year.
That’s not to ignore some of the quantifiable reasons behind the fall back. If you look at Fangraphs, the reasoning is clear: He stopped hitting line drives. According to their batted ball data, his line drive rate fell to a career-low 14 percent. A drop like that is certain to have negative affects on one’s BABIP. Of course, if you look at Baseball Prospectus, his line drive rate is all the way up to 23 percent. This is a much better mark, and one that lends more credence that heavy regression could be on the way. The easy play is to cut it down the middle, which would still suggest he could add at least another 40 points to the .253 BABIP.
While the success of balls in play fell, Holliday showed off some new power in 2016. His .215 Isolated Power was his highest since 2011, and coincided with the power boom around the league. Now, if we’re going to say his BABIP should improve next year (and that’s what I’m saying), then the opposite should be said about his power. This is particularly true because we have no idea if this power spike will continue moving forward. With that being said, it might not fall by quite as much if he comes to the Red Sox. Simply moving from St. Louis to Boston and the rest of the AL East would be a boost to his true-talent power. When you add in the fact that he was pulling the ball more often and finishing in the top-30 in average fly ball distance (right behind Mike Trout), there is reason to believe it is somewhat sustainable. Even a fall back to a .180 ISO would keep him as a very productive hitter.
Finally, we have the plate discipline. His walk rate fell down to just 8.2 percent in 2016, which was his lowest since 2006 and six percentage points below his 2015 rate. A fall like this, particularly at Holliday’s age, could signal a collapse in plate discipline. However, the underlying numbers haven’t changed. He wasn’t swinging at pitches out of the zone more than other years in his career, nor was he even seeing more strikes. The biggest change was that he was making contact on pitches in the zone, meaning he wasn’t getting deep enough in counts to work walks. That’s the most acceptable reason for seeing a decrease in walk rate, and a sign that it’s not an issue worth worrying a ton about moving forward.
So, there is plenty of evidence he should improve upon his down-year at the plate. Despite all of that, he doesn’t necessarily check all of Ben’s boxes from before. For one, he is not a lefty. Fortunately, Holliday doesn’t show any extreme splits, being virtually the same hitter versus righties and lefties, both last season and throughout his career. He’s also not particularly versatile, as keeping him at DH is the smartest way to utilize him. Doing so would help the aging hitter stay healthy through a whole season. Plus, he can certainly play left field and first base at times if needed, even if that shouldn’t be the full-time plan.
Like I said before, I’d be surprised if this happened, despite it making all sorts of sense. Holliday is a strong fit in the lineup, as he can consistently produce at an above-average clip in all offensive areas. Plus, his age and the fact he’s coming off a down-year will make him cheap, particularly in terms of years. Not only does this make them more flexible to address other areas of needs, but it keeps the door open down the road for them for some of their internal options to grow into the position if it comes to that. If they’re not going to go all-out for Edwin Encarnacion, then Holliday should be their man.