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Who's better: Matt Holliday or Jason Bay?

Dec 29, 2009, 11:51 AM EDT

As right-handed-hitting left fielders with big bats and questionable gloves Matt Holliday and Jason Bay have been linked together as free agents. Some teams like Holliday more than Bay, some teams like Bay more than Holliday, and whatever the case one has often been described as an alternative to the other.
Now that the market for both players has narrowed considerably, I thought it would be a good time to examine whether the 30-year-old Holliday or the 31-year-old Bay is more valuable. Simply comparing their raw numbers is misleading because Holliday called Coors Field home for five seasons and hit .357 with a 1.068 OPS at the majors’ most hitter-friendly ballpark, so let’s dig a bit deeper.
Holliday hit .280 with an .803 OPS on the road during his time in Colorado and then basically matched that non-Coors Field production by hitting .286 with an .831 OPS in Oakland. However, he then went nuts after being traded to St. Louis, batting .353 with a 1.023 OPS in 63 games. His true talent level may be tough to decipher from that, but has a stat called adjusted OPS+ that normalizes a hitter’s production by essentially taking leagues and ballparks out of the picture.

ADJUSTED OPS+     CAREER     2009     2008
Matt Holliday       133       139      138
Jason Bay           131       134      134

Holliday has a career adjusted OPS+ of 133, including 139 last season and 138 in 2008. By comparison Bay has a career adjusted OPS+ of 131, including 134 in each of the past two seasons. Based on those marks it seems clear that Holliday is a slightly better hitter, although both rank among the top 20 or so bats in MLB. And sure enough over the past two seasons Fan Graphs pegs Holliday as worth 41 runs above average per 600 plate appearances offensively, compared to 36 runs above average for Bay.
In other words Holliday has been about five runs better per season offensively and because he’s a year younger that figures to continue. Examining their defense is also somewhat tricky because while both players have poor reputations in left field the advanced defensive metrics see them as significantly different. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs Bay as 8.0 runs below average per 150 games for his career, including 14.7 runs below average per 150 games since his knee problems in 2007.
On the other hand per 150 games UZR shows Holliday as 6.9 runs above average for his career, including 8.5 runs above average per 150 games in the past two seasons. Given their similar defensive reputations some people may find it hard to believe that Holliday is that much better than Bay in left field, but even if the true gap in gloves was, say, 10 runs instead of 20-25 runs that’s still big. Tack on Holliday’s edge offensively and he’s at least 10-15 runs better per season and perhaps as many as 25-30 runs ahead of Bay.
At first glance they may look the same because of their many similarities, but Hollliday is a better hitter and better fielder along with being a year younger. He’s a superior player and more desirable free agent target.

  1. TommyP - Jan 2, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    One thing a lot of you are not considering is the adjustment period to the AL for Holliday.
    That plus the fact that his batting mechanics got messed up for awhile that first month in Oakland.
    Look at tape and you’ll see that Holliday had virtually no leg kick that first month in Oakland. Without his Colorado hitting coach, it went unnoticed and he slumped badly. Once he corrected it, he lit up the AL before the trade.

  2. doc - Jan 4, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    The fact that the Mets went on record saying bay was the better player leads me to the conclusion that Holliday is better. ( The Mets suck at player evaluations).

  3. Jason - Jan 5, 2010 at 8:42 AM

    I think the fact that the Mets signed Bay has less to do with them thinking he was better (even if that’s what they told the media) and more to do with ownership wanting to stay away from a 6-8 year deal. If Holliday signs for 4 or 5 years then the Mets blew it, but will Boras see that happening? After his body of work and time in St. Louis how can a 30 year-old outfielder like Holliday sign a 5-year contract? What kind of deal will he get at 35?
    The Mets did good to get Bay for 4 years, if he can’t put it together in that time then he comes off payroll with Beltran and everyone else they overpaid a few years back.

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