By Ian Walton
The Cardinals were rightfully pleased to add new cleanup hitter Matt Holliday to their roster in their quest to reach the playoffs and the World Series here in 2009. Holliday provides a significant upgrade in left field and has helped to spark St. Louis’ offense ever since his arrival. I do have one concern, however. Holliday does not belong hitting behind Albert Pujols in the clean up spot.
Why would I say something crazy like that? Wasn’t the entire purpose of acquiring Holliday to provide Pujols with some protection in the batting lineup? Now I’ll readily grant you that I may, in fact, be crazy. However, I’m still fairly sure that Holliday’s suitability for the cleanup role rests solely upon his reputation from playing in Coors Field. Let’s turn to the cold, hard data:
|At Coors Field||1517||1353||483||129||230||106||16||84||28||9||0.357||0.423||0.645||1.068|
The differences here are clear. Holliday is a quality batter either way, but his batting average and particularly his slugging percentage undoubtedly benefited from being a mile high. In a standard full season of plate appearances away from Coors Field, he could be considered fortunate to average any better than 20 home runs.
Uh oh? Well, maybe not. Despite not mashing like a true cleanup hitter, Holliday is by far the Cardinals’ second best hitter when ranked by OPS this season. He is flashing solid doubles power, has seen a dramatic improvement in his plate discipline for the second straight season, and has even chosen to make himself an increased danger on the base paths when not playing in the land of the home run and leads the Cardinals in steals. Despite only ranking as the 51st best player in the major leagues in slugging percentage, he does rank 16th in on-base percentage. That sounds a heck of a lot like a top of the order hitter to me. Sure, he probably has too much power to burn hitting leadoff, but batting second in the order may not be a bad fit at all. So who hits behind Pujols? Let’s look at this season’s top three options:
Here we see very similar slugging percentages among Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and Ryan Ludwick. However, it is clear that the latter two have filled their numbers with round trippers while the former is all doubles. DeRosa and Ludwick apparently don’t reach base terribly often. Their strengths lie in driving in runners, not in reaching base to be driven in by others.
Ludwick has been fairly secure in the number five spot of late, but DeRosa has been bounced all around the order since returning from injury, primarily landing at numbers two or seven in the lineup. Really? You either want to hope that your .328 OBP hitter gets on base for Pujols and the heart of the order or you want to bury your team’s fourth highest OPS way down in the seventh hole?
Well what about the rest of the team? Of the regulars, Skip Schumaker has an OPS of .757, Colby Rasmus .737, Yadier Molina .718, Rick Ankiel .702 and everyone else is even lower. Of those, Rasmus and Ankiel have slugging percentages over .400 (.431 and .411 respectively), but despite their ability to mix up the middle of the lineup with a left-handed hitter, their numbers don’t exactly cry out heart of the order. What about on-base percentage? Well, only Schumaker at .360 and Molina at .350 can even top Ludwick’s numbers in this group, and Molina is too slow to bat second. Sure, Julio Lugo is playing well over his head in limited action this season, but his career numbers say that he should come back to earth soon.
So why not go with Schumaker-Holliday-Pujols-DeRosa-Ludwick instead at the top of the lineup? Your five best hitters (by OPS) get the most at-bats and everyone is slotted into a role that suits him. Your centerfielder for the day, whether Ankiel or Rasmus, can provide a second lefty in the lineup at number six and Molina and the shortstop du jour can round out the bottom of the order. If you don’t trust DeRosa’s power, having seen it only emerge over the past couple of seasons, put him fifth and let the career .506 slugging Ludwick bat cleanup. On the other hand, DeRosa has already hit seven home runs in 65 AB for the Cardinals.
So to summarize, Holliday is a great ballplayer, but despite his reputation as a power hitter, his skill set outside of Coors Field profiles him as a much better hitter in front of Pujols than behind him. Batting Holliday second would have the added benefit of placing DeRosa in the heart of the lineup where he belongs and bumping the team’s lesser hitters lower in the order where they see fewer at bats.
All statistics above are accurate through 7/31/2009. Thanks to Baseball Reference for statistical support.