In the offseason, the Yankees made a one-year commitment to Matt Holliday, a career .303 hitter with power and playoff experience. The purpose was to add some strength to the middle of the lineup and provide what was expected to be a young crop of players another veteran presence.
The risk was being rewarded handsomely until Holliday fell ill with Epstein-Barr virus, which sapped his energy and required a 19-day stint on the disabled list. Holliday returned with the rest of his teammates as the All-Star break concluded. Now, we're questioning how long Yankees manager Joe Girardi can keep penciling Holliday into the starting lineup as the designated hitter.
Holliday made the Yankees feel sage about their investment by contributing a .262 batting average, .366 on-base percentage and a .511 slugging percentage with 15 home runs and 47 RBIs through June 24 (276 plate appearances). Holliday's wRC+ was a very impressive 131 (100 being average). A complementary effect for the Yankees was Holliday providing some protection in the lineup for rookie slugger Aaron Judge.
Since the break and coming off the disabled list, Holliday has looked completely lost at the plate. In 81 plate appearances through Wednesday's game, Holliday is hitting .143 with a .173 on-base percentage, a .206 slugging percentage and negative wRC+ (-7). Holliday has one home run and four RBIs during the stretch. It may or may not be a coincidence that Judge is also struggling (the right fielder is hitting just .164 since the break).
Digging deeper, there are several concerning factors to Holliday's slump. In the first half of the season, Holliday was drawing plenty of walks, doing so at a 13.4 percent clip, which was 3.5 points better than his career mark in the measure through 2016. Holliday has not only been unable to get hits, he's failed to draw walks over the period, generating a measly 3.7 percent rate.
Not surprisingly, considering the low batting average and walk rate, Holliday's strikeout rate has increased from 25.7 percent to 28.4 percent. Holliday's career strikeout rate was 16.4 percent coming into the 2017 season, so the strikeouts were already well above his career norm this season. Something else must be going on.
The new wrinkle has to do with the type of contact that Holliday is making of late. Holliday's hard hit rate has decreased from 35.8 percent to 23.6 percent and his ground ball percentage is up nine points (45.5 percent to 54.5 percent). Part of the reason behind these changes is Holliday's approach from hitting to the opposite field at a reasonably good clip (33.3 percent of the time in the first half) has declined (27.3 percent in the second half).
The heat maps below, courtesy of FanGraphs, show Holliday's differences in contact rates in and out of the strike zone from the first and second halves.
There is a good deal more contact being made by Holliday on balls at the outer edge of the strike zone and much more so with balls completely outside the zone in the second half. This would lead to fewer hard hit balls and an increase in ground balls.
For Holliday, it seems that getting back to the basics of his first half successes - swinging at better pitches allowing for harder contact, taking some walks and going the other way when the opportunity presents itself - will go a long way toward his ability to bust out of the slump.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has a decision staring him down where it concerns Holliday. Understanding that Girardi believes that keeping Holliday (or anyone slumping) in the lineup is the best way to get the player going, the Yankees skipper has to be measured concerning when those at-bats come. Once a player gets into a skid as long and as deep as Holliday's, selectively placing the player in spots that will benefit his ability to make solid contact becomes more important than forcing the issue.
The at-bats to be spread through the Yankees' roster will be increasingly difficult to come by when Aaron Hicks returns to the big club (he just began a rehab assignment Wednesday at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre). Girardi has already (and rightly) diminished time from Jacoby Ellsbury because of rookie Clint Frazier's rise. Frazier could very well be sent down to the minors, but the Yankees seem to be softening on that notion. If Holliday continues to scuffle, Girardi will have continue to go with the hot hands and reduce the veteran's presence in the lineup.
Further, decreasing Holliday's grip on full-time DH duties - even if temporarily - allows Girardi to find rest for Brett Gardner, Gary Sanchez and Judge (who could certainly use a break) by giving them half days. Or Girardi can slide Ellsbury into the DH spot on a day when the lefty hitter faces a right-hander he has demonstrated success against.
The point is, the status quo is not working right now. The Yankees' offense as a whole has gone cold for an extended period and Holliday is front and center among the culprits. Changes from the player and the manager are needed and quickly as the club tries to hang onto a playoff spot.