Can the Cardinals build a winning team around Matt Holliday?

Authors note: I promise we’re not trying to turn The Hardball Times Live into “”. However, it is a topic worthy of extra attention. How his contract situation plays out will say a great deal about many questions that face Major League Baseball today. And over the past few years, I’ve poured a lot of time into Cardinals statistics, so I might as well put it to some use.

Last year, during the 2010 offseason, I was wrong. Dead wrong. In case you’re wondering, it has happened before and will happen again. Last winter, I thought there was no way the Cardinals would sign Matt Holliday to a long-term contract.

Scott Boras, who is Matt Holliday’s agent, always gets what he wants (which I find very admirable, by the way), and the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have a real good track record of getting what they want from Scott Boras. But when the seven-year, $120,000,000 deal for Matt Holliday was made, both parties were satisfied, and I was proved wrong.

The signing of Matt Holliday was always billed as proof positive to Albert Pujols that ownership was committed to putting a winning team around him. However, several questions have continued to plague me this year (if baseball questions can, in fact, be the plaguing sort), and there was an article over at Baseball Prospectus yesterday by Steven Goldman, “When is baseball’s MVP it’s least valuable player?” that caught my attention.

Goldman’s article brought back my thoughts from last year: how did the Cardinals intend to make the Matt Holliday contract work with what Albert Pujols would be demanding, deserving and desiring? Realistically, could the Cardinals win a World Series championship with protection for Pujols that did not include a $120 million, seven-year contract? Or the other way around, could someone win a World Series around Matt Holliday?

Last year, Matt Holliday was ranked in the top ten of fourteen different categories of batting leaders in the National League. In position player WAR he was fifth (5.5), and Pujols was first (7.2). In Offensive WAR Holliday was 4th (5.4), Pujols was first (7.4). Batting average: Holliday and Pujols both were sixth (.312). In on-base percentage, Holliday was ranked sixth (.390) and Pujols second (.414).

In 2010, Holliday continued to put up numbers in slugging percentage, OPS, Games played, AB, PA, hits, doubles, total bases and RBI that had him in the top ten in the NL. His WPA last year was 3.7, which had him ranked fifth. Pujols was second with a 5.1 WPA.

He was not in the top ten in runs scored, home runs, and walks. He was not in the top ten in strikeouts or stolen bases, and he wasn’t caught stealing enough to land him in the top ten for times caught stealing (insert smiley face here). He also was not in the top ten in AB per K, or in outs made.

Of course, much of his production had to do with the fact that he was batting behind Albert Pujols. Still, Matt Holliday’s career numbers are good, he was good last year and for 2011 Oliver has him down for a .307/.387/.518 line. But is he the type of ballplayer one would build a team around? Does a ballclub need two position players with the numbers he has (or better) to win a World Series?

Before we answer that question, as a point of reference, the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants had only one ballplayer, Aubrey Huff, who ranked in the top ten even five times out of the fourteen categories both Pujols and Holliday were in.

Matt Holliday’s career OBP is .388. Since 1961 in the NL, 200 different teams have had at least one position player with an OBP of .388 or better. Of the 200, 124 teams had one ballplayer with an OBP of .388 or better, 61 teams had two ballplayers, 14 teams had three and the 1970 San Francisco Giants were the only team with four —Dick Dietz, Ken Henderson, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.

Of the 200 teams listed, only five won a World Series championship. In 1975 and 1976, the Cincinnati Reds had three ballplayers with an OBP of .388 or greater—Ken Griffey, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose. In 1997, the Florida Marlins had Gary Sheffield. The Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 had Luis Gonzalez, and in 2006 the St. Louis Cardinals had one ballplayer that met the criteria, Albert Pujols.

Matt Holliday had 5.5 WAR in 2010. Since 1961, 200 teams have had one or more position players with a 5.5 WAR or better. Nine of those teams won a World Series. The 1967 Cardinals won the World Series with Orlando Cepeda and Tim McCarver. Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones were part of the 1969 New York Mets.

When the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1971, they had Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. In 1975, the Cincinnati Reds had two position players with 5.5 WAR or better—Johnny Bench and Morgan. And in 1976, they won it all with Morgan, George Foster and Rose.

The rest of the teams had one ballplayer with 5.5 WAR or better: the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers had Kirk Gibson; 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks had Gonzalez; 2008 Philadelphia Phillies had Chase Utley; and the 2010 San Francisco Giants had Huff.

There’s lots that has been said over the years of what the make-up of a championship team should be. Does having both Pujols and Holliday guarantee a World Series Championship? No, of course not. To win a World Series does Pujols need someone with Holliday’s statistics to protect him? Probably not. Could Holliday’s offensive numbers be enough to build a World Series championship team around him without Pujols? Yes.

Maybe I’m wrong again this year. Cardinals fans sure hope I am.

References and Resources
There are five things I need to survive on earth. I’ll give you one: Baseball Reference. The website was used as a resource in this article.

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Deep Throat
11 years ago

Bottomline, Matt can NOT lead Cards to a World Series.

While he’s a capable contact hitter with some power, he is in no way a strong leader.

His personality type is what we call inner MLB circles a “floater”: a player who can eat from the lunch left-overs of other players, but isn’t an alpha male to bring or setup the lunch for himself to eat first.

Not knocking the guy, but compare the surrounding cast he had in Colorado vs Oakland vs St. Louis.
He’s just not comfortable being in the spotlight and tightens up.

There was a reason why he selected St. Louis over Red Sox/Yankees who would have easily out-bid St. Louis; especially if Boras (his agent)had been truly turned loose.

Anna McDonald
11 years ago

Thanks for the comments. I was actually assuming the readers (and writers) here have read extensively about what really wins games in the playoffs, so your point is exactly perfect. And this post would lend to the conclusion—- be careful where you spend mass amounts of money if you don’t have an unlimited budget and want to win in the postseason. Thanks again for the great thoughts.

grandpa boog
11 years ago

Trade Pujols; otherwise, signing him will break the Cardinal $$ bank.

Problem is, StL waited too long to negotiate a Pujols’ contract, but now the big-money teams have signed other star players and/or made their trades. Therefore, my favorite team of seven decades—the StL—is not in a position of strength to sign Pujols OR trade him.

Pujols’ best seasons over a 10-year span already have occurred. That is not to say that he will not remain a tower of strength for a few more years, but not for another 8-10 years, unless he does what Bonds did.

Trade him. Of course, it might cost the StL GM his job.

—Stay tuned.

11 years ago

This is another datapoint to support Baseball Prospectus’ and THT’s research that found that it is pitching and fielding that provides competitive advantage in the playoffs in terms of going deep, and not offense.

BP wrote about this in their book, Baseball Between the Numbers (chapter on Billy Beane’s, er, stuff not working in the playoffs), and THT wrote about it a few years ago, using different methodology, but coming to the same conclusion (not sure who did it first).

The problem here, assuming you believe in the researchs’ conclusions, is that the logical conclusion is that you can’t really build around a hitter, you need to build around the pitching.

Using business nomenclature, Geoffrey Moore would say that pitching and fielding are the core competency for building a successful playoff championship team, while offense is the hygiene that can be “outsourced” (i.e. filled via free agency).

Though, to be fair, your question in the headline is whether you can win with Holliday – obviously, you can win a lot of games – while within the article the question changes to winning the World Series, and research suggests “no, only if the pitching and fielding are top-notch and that has only to do with him in regards to his fielding”.

11 years ago

Oh, forgot to add:  great article, loved reading it!

11 years ago

1. Matt Holliday led the Rockies to a World Series, why couldn’t he lead the Cardinals to one?

2. The Cardinals can’t trade Pujols. He’s got 10-and-5 rights, and he’s said he’ll reject any trade during the season. The Cardinals have two choices, and two choices only: Sign Pujols, or take the draft pick compensation.

3. Just because the Cardinals don’t choose to meet Pujols’ salary demands doesn’t mean they can’t contend. They could always take the money Pujols turns down and spend it on another good player or players.

4. If Pujols is looking for A-Rod money, I wouldn’t offer him more than five, six years at most. Beyond that, he’s not going to be worth the expenditure. I’d bet on him still being a good player at 40, but $10 million good, not $30 million.