Commentary

30 Questions: How will Holliday fare in Oakland?

Updated: February 20, 2009, 1:30 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

How will Matt Holliday fare moving from Colorado to Oakland?

It's the grand question: What, precisely, happens to a Coors Field hitter's numbers once he departs that hitters' heaven?

Going by ESPN's rankings and projections, our group stance is clear: We think Matt Holliday's numbers will suffer. The No. 1 outfielder and No. 6 player overall on the 2008 Player Rater, Holliday's has slipped to ninth and 27th, respectively, in 2009. A runner-up for MVP honors two years ago, the slugger averaged 32 home runs, 113 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and 115 runs scored while batting .329 the past three seasons combined; but we're projecting a drop off to .305-25-100-16-104 numbers in '09.

Count me among those who believes that projected stat line should be about your lowest expectation from Holliday this season.

Road worries

Matt Holliday
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMIMatt Holliday hopes to prove many critics wrong by keeping up his production in a much less hitter-friendly ballpark in Oakland.
Those who reside in the anti-Holliday camp most often recite his career road statistics as their evidence: He's a .280 hitter who has averaged 19 home runs, 78 RBIs, 17 stolen bases and 86 runs scored per 150 road games. More recently, he batted .304 in 142 road contests in the past two seasons combined, totaling 21 home runs, 84 RBIs, 25 stolen bases and 98 runs scored. Going by those numbers alone, that's a good player, but not the first-round monster we used to regard Holliday as during his Rockies days.

Problem is, I don't believe you can simply take a Rockies hitter's road numbers and project them out to a full season's slate of games. Home-field advantage is still just that, an advantage, and at the bare minimum means generally a four- or five-percent statistical advantage in most categories. Getting more specific, going by 2008 numbers, players in home games managed 4.2 percent more home runs, 4.4 percent higher batting average, 5.1 percent higher OPS and 5.2 percent more runs scored than players in road games.

In other words, if you're not taking Holliday's road statistics, granting them at least a four-percent bump across the board and then adding them to his raw road statistics to get a full season, you're shortchanging him. You're giving him, in effect, his worst-case scenario.

Another way to look at it: Baseball-reference.com has a method of "neutralizing" a player's statistics, in other words removing any ballpark- and team-specific influences. From 2006-08, these were Holliday's neutralized statistics: .312 batting average, 29 home runs, 98 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and 101 runs scored.

Those are eerily similar to our 2009 projections, and in fact, represent a slight improvement to both his batting average and home run total.

Historical ex-Rockies

Holliday isn't the first notable Rockie to depart Coors Field's hitter-friendly atmosphere, he's just the most recent. He's actually the sixth player in team history to manage a season with at least a .300 batting average, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs; Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks, Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker are the others.

What that quintet did after leaving Coors, though, offers plenty of hope for ex-Rockies. Taking their average statistics in their final three seasons -- I included three and change for Burks and Walker, each of whom left the Rockies in a midseason trade -- and then their numbers from their first full seasons away from Coors -- again, counting one and change for Burks and Walker -- here's how the group fared:

Rockies: 144 G, .308 BA, .371 OBP, .558 SLG, .929 OPS, average age 32.9
New team: 137 G, .291 BA, .367 OBP, .518 SLG, .884 OPS, average age 35.1

That demonstrates a noticeable drop off in production, yes, but age must be accounted for; every single one of those players was 32 years or older at the time of their departure from Colorado. Holliday, by comparison, is 29, still in the prime of his career.

Castilla was the youngest, 32, at the time he left the Rockies, and strangely, was the one most responsible for hurting the group's numbers in their first year with their new teams. Check out how miserable his 2000 was in Tampa Bay! He had a .221 average, six homers, 41 RBIs and a .562 OPS in 331 at-bats.

What makes Coors Coors, anyway?

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In reading others' opinions about the Holliday question this winter, one of the most interesting takes I saw came from blogger Jeff Fletcher. His theory was that what makes Rockies hitters so ordinary (worse-than-ordinary?) is that a pitched baseball -- curveball or slider -- doesn't break as sharply at Coors as it does closer to sea level, and therefore Rockies hitters are unique in that they must adapt to pitches breaking differently at home than they do on the road. A player who plays most or all of his games at sea level, by comparison, wouldn't face nearly the same adjustment period from trip to trip that a Rockies hitter might.

What was most fascinating about Fletcher's angle was his demonstration that Holliday's career road numbers tended to improve with each successive road game he played. Holliday's statistics exhibited that after four or five games, he'd revert to near the comfort level he enjoyed back at Coors, batting .300-plus with a .500-plus slugging percentage in games six and beyond of any Rockies road trip.

That might help explain why the aforementioned five sluggers in their post-Rockies days remained in the ballpark, value-wise, to their days sporting purple, silver and black. Sure enough, the statistics show that in their final full seasons with the Rockies, Bichette, Burks, Castilla, Galarraga and Walker averaged a home OPS 152 points higher than on the road. In their first full seasons with their new teams, however, their home-road splits differed by a mere 28 points in OPS, significantly narrowing the gap.

Incidentally, how many feet above sea level is the city of Oakland, Calif? A mere 42, and not once this season will the Athletics play a game at higher than 824 feet above sea level.

So why worry?

With that evidence in mind, it seems the more relevant concerns with Holliday are the Athletics' weak offense and tendency to restrict baserunning freedom. Oakland ranked dead last in baseball in team OPS in 2008 (.686), and the Athletics as a team haven't stolen more than the 88 bases they swiped in '08 in any other year this decade. You can see the impact of those factors in Holliday's runs scored, RBIs and stolen bases projections, and I'd say the adjustments we've made are more than adequate.

It's his steals total -- not departing Coors -- that has me most troubled with Holliday, as it represents the possibility for the greatest drop off in his stats. Still, while Oakland has been noted for not stealing often, fact remains that strategy, made famous in the book "Moneyball," suggests being smart with the stolen base lest you risk unnecessary outs, not that you stop attempting to steal bases entirely.

Holliday has proven successful on 79.5 percent of his career stolen-base attempts, an impressive ratio, and certainly enough to earn him a green light more than you'd expect. There's little doubt he can crack double digits in the category, more than enough to keep his numbers in the .310-25-100-15-100 range at the bare minimum.

That's a clear second-round choice … and you might even snag him in the third, accounting for much of the anti-Holliday backlash this preseason.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.