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On Holliday’s protection of Pujols

In the aftermath of his devastating error with two out in the ninth inning in the Cardinals-Dodgers National League Division Series game two, the future of soon-to-be free agent outfielder Matt Holliday remains one of the hottest debate topics across Cardinal Nation.

Assertions have been made here and elsewhere that he should not be re-signed by the Cardinals, despite his many contributions after having been acquired from Oakland on July 24.

One reason cited is that Holliday was a failure in what has been viewed by some as his primary role – protection for Albert Pujols in the middle of the Cardinals lineup.

Certainly that was the case in the NLDS, as Dodgers manager Joe Torre made a cognizant and obvious decision to not pitch to Pujols in any run-producing situation. As a result, Albert was issued three intentional walks in games one and two.

The clear reason for it was that heading into the DS, Holliday was not hitting well. Despite hitting 24 home runs on the season, the outfielder had just one after September 8. Holliday did connect for a solo shot in game two, but that was his only RBI of the series.

He batted just 2-for-12 (.167) in the three losses, and did not immediately atone for his game two gaffe. In Saturday’s season-ending game three, Holliday went 0-for-4 with three left on base.

This occurred despite the fact that Holliday was already October-proven. In the Rockies’ 2007 run to the World Series, Holliday had a very good postseason. His line in 11 games was .289/.319/.622 and included five home runs and 10 RBI.

Interestingly, during the 2009 regular season, the Cardinals faced the Dodgers seven times in August and won five of those games. All occurred after the Holliday trade. In those games, Torre issued one free pass to Pujols, but had his pitchers intentionally walk Holliday twice.

Not surprisingly, all seven games occurred during Holliday’s first 24 contests with the Cardinals. During that honeymoon period, he was absolutely blistering the baseball and consequently, Torre had his pitchers treat Holliday with kid gloves.

Torre wasn’t alone, as the NL as a whole gave Pujols far more opportunities to hit after Holliday’s arrival than prior. Here are the specifics of Pujols’ regular season intentional bases on balls (IBB) before July 24 and after:

Pujols’ IBB before Holliday: 34 in 411 PA = 1 per 12.1 plate appearances
Pujols’ IBB with Holliday: 10 in 289 PA = 1 per 28.9 plate appearances

In other words, the rate of Pujols’ intentional walks was more than cut in half once Holliday was batting behind him. That clearly demonstrates that the league as a whole respected the presence of Holliday.

It is surely fair to wonder why Pujols couldn’t do more with his greater opportunities to hit the ball, but his second half of the 2009 season is a different question for a different day.

If Holliday returns to the Cardinals, there is no reason to suspect the behavior exhibited by opposing managers and pitchers in 2009 would not continue in 2010 – as long as he is more consistent with the bat than he showed in his first few months as a Cardinal.

NLCS Footnote
: The walk-a-thon continued in the NLCS as the Dodgers issued seven free passes in their game one loss to the Phillies. Not surprisingly, the 2-3-4 hitters received four, including two to Philly’s version of Pujols, number three hitter Ryan Howard. How much of that was by design and how much was due to the Ankiel-like wildness of 21-year-old lefty Clayton Kershaw is a fair question.

The Phils received just one free pass in game two, but Howard went deep for their only run. As such, I would expect Torre to have his hurlers pitch to the slugger more carefully the rest of the way.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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