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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. J. McCann - Dec 29, 2009 at 11:55 AM

    OPS+ does not properly take into account the enormous current difference between the leagues, IMHO.
    But with all their attributes, if I ran a NL team, then I would want Holliday, and if I ran an AL team, then I want Bay (4 years max).

  2. JimC. - Dec 29, 2009 at 12:10 PM


  3. Nathaniel B - Dec 29, 2009 at 12:14 PM

    AL want BAy Nl want Holliday BAy back Bean town

  4. Aaron Gleeman - Dec 29, 2009 at 12:18 PM

    I have a feeling there will be lots of comments playing up the AL/NL angle, but before that happens let’s try to put things into context.

    Holliday has played a grand total of 93 games in the American League, which is hardly a large enough sample to form any sort of meaningful conclusions. He also hit .286/.378/.454 for an .831 OPS in a pitcher’s ballpark, which was good for a 120 OPS+. Not exactly the performance of someone who “stunk.”

    Bay has played 200 games in the American League while hitting .274/.380/.534 in a hitter’s ballpark, which is good for a 132 OPS+. So yes, based solely on their performances in the AL–which represents only a small fraction of their career–Bay was better. Of course, maybe Holliday just had a bad half-season, which happens to players all the time, in which case the 132-to-120 gap in OPS+ may not be particularly meaningful at all.

    Both guys have played a lot of games in the majors and have plenty of data from which to evaluate their ability, so focusing on 93 games seems kind of silly to me.

  5. Joe Tetreault - Dec 29, 2009 at 12:25 PM

    I don’t believe league has much to do with it, Contra Jim and Nathaniel. Hitting environment holds more relevance. Holliday in a cavernous Citi Field (aka Bailout Ballpark) would be just as poor as he was in Oakland, another poor environment for a hitter. Bay reasonably should hit fine in the NL, but again in a home park that diminishes his primary skill (power) his value is diminished. A hitting environment like Fenway Park is near ideal for Bay, and would work well for Holliday. But with Boston saying no thanks and the Yankees theoretically out of the running, Bay and Holliday have no suitors to drive up their prices. They might even both end up earning their pay over the life of whatever deal they sign.

  6. Joe Tetreault - Dec 29, 2009 at 12:36 PM

    Aaron, I hadn’t seen your comment when I added mine. I absolutely agree. Holliday’s time in a poor hitting environment (Oakland) in a small sample size is impossible to reasonably compare to Bay’s time in a great hitting environment in a larger, but still small sample size.
    Additional context should also be paid to the lineup they hit in. Boston and Oakland both emphasize clogging the basepaths, but Boston with a larger budget has done better with practical application. More runners on, more RBI opportunity, more PA with pitchers in the stretch, having thrown a higher number of pitches. While the effect lineup context has is difficult to pin down, failing to note that Pedroia and Youkilis hit in front of Bay versus an out machine like Cabrera and a tired old slugger like Giambi in front of Holliday in April is ignoring useful theories to explain the small sample bias.

  7. UPPERCASE MATH - Dec 29, 2009 at 12:49 PM

    OPS+ of 120=stunk?

  8. Char-in-Miami - Dec 29, 2009 at 1:17 PM

    i know for a fact that you can skewer statistics around by the parameters of data included.
    i had to laugh when i googled OPS to see exactly what went THAT equation (it includes the numbber of times hit by a pitch???!!!) and it occurs to me that we’re ignoring some very important criteria in the OPS equation.
    for example – the ambient temperature on the field when the game starts; whether or not it rains – either at all or throughout the game; whether the pitcher is right handed or left handed; the color of eyes of the batter; and especially if the batter had a bowel movement that day.
    give me a break!!

  9. Eric Vogel - Dec 29, 2009 at 1:22 PM

    At the same time, if you’re looking at career stats, you also have to take into context the lineups these guys have played in. When Holliday was playing in Coors he had some actual protection in the lineup with Helton, Atkins (before he forgot the face of his father), and Hawpe protecting him. Bay was in a Pittsburgh lineup where he was protected by… Bueller? Bueller? Yea, nobody.

  10. Eric Vogel - Dec 29, 2009 at 1:29 PM

    Yes. OPS = On Base + Slugging. Getting hit by a pitch is one way to get ON BASE and hence, it is included in the ON BASE plus slugging equation.

  11. Matt - Dec 29, 2009 at 1:41 PM

    Finally, an article about Bay and Holliday that makes sense. Matt Holliday, up until this point in time; has been marginally better than Jason Bay. He is also about a year and a half younger than Bay. That doesn’t mean they will perform the same way in the future, but only measures past performance. Matt Holliday weighs 235 pounds compared to 205 pounds for Jason Bay. Carrying all that weight around can lead to a lot of wear and tear on the body. And once a player signs a long term contract and is getting older; his best days are in the past. Both of them should sign with AL teams so they can rest their legs once in a while by DHing. This will make their careers last much longer.

  12. Brian - Dec 29, 2009 at 2:12 PM

    yea but Holiday had Jason Giambi batting .180 protecting him. Plus the rest of the offensive juggernaut A’s around.

  13. Shely - Dec 29, 2009 at 2:35 PM

    You can’t really compare Holliday’s stats in a shortened season in the AL, to his entire career. Remember, Holliday in Colorado, he had been picked to possibly hit .400 along with Larry Walker. Of course, Walker had the better bat, but Holliday for a short time, was thought to be that good. He is a better hitter, but more importantly, he does not crash as hard as Bay at the end of the season. Bay is a much better player from April to July than he is from Aug. thru Sept. Holiday is a little more consistent.

  14. Shely - Dec 29, 2009 at 2:41 PM

    I don’t disagree with your comments entirely, however with your logic, Barry Bonds should have been finished a long time before he was. He was about 50 pounds overweight, and should have collapsed under the weight. Both Bay and Holliday would be better in a small AL hitters park.

  15. J. McCann - Dec 29, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    I don’t put an undue weight on 93 games. It’s just that OPS+ more or less treats the leagues as equal, which historically they usually are close to. But for any numbers recently put up in the NL, based on the annual interleague beating and recent effects on league switchers, you need to deflate the NL numbers by 5% to 10%.
    Holliday appears to be vastly better on D of course, but there are ways to minimize that (not so much in Bay’s new home in Citi Field.)

  16. Oldschool_Blue - Dec 29, 2009 at 4:51 PM

    Well, since I’m Drew Henson, I’m the ultimate source of knowledge on baseball … as well as football. And hype being greater than substance.
    That said, historical statistics do show that Holliday is more likely to outperform Bay, though as we all know past performance (esp in different environments) is no guarantee on future performance.
    I would think the Mets looked at both players and probably thought they could get Bay at a better contract than they could to land Holliday. Whether Bay performs as he did historically (barring that one “terrible” year, by his standards, that he had in Pit) or he’s worth his contract is unknown, but cost aside he’ll almost certainly improve the Mets hitting.

  17. UPPERCASE MATH - Dec 29, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    “You can’t really compare Holliday’s stats in a shortened season in the AL, to his entire career. Remember, Holliday in Colorado, he had been picked to possibly hit .400 along with Larry Walker.”
    I believe you missed the “?” in my comment. Someone had referred to Holliday stinking in Oakland. I cited a 120 OPS+ as a counter-argument.
    As for players who are “picked to possibly hit .400”, who on earth cares? Holliday is a very good player who should be measured on his actual performance, not what some random person thought he might be capable of.

  18. Matt - Dec 29, 2009 at 5:27 PM

    That’s true, Barry did play a long time but he might of had some special help that todays players aren’t supposed to use. From my experience in watching 6 feet four inch 235 poundball players they usually start having back and knee problems much sooner than players 40 pound lighter. So unless Matt wants to learn firstbase or DH he might have some physical problems in the future.

  19. bucsfan - Dec 29, 2009 at 6:19 PM

    Actually, you’re dead wroong about Bay wearing down. In 2009, his second half numbers across the board were better, except RBIS, which is situational. Afrer a very bad June and a wretched July (1 HR). He hit over .300 with 16 HRs in August and September, hardly a collapse.

  20. Shely - Dec 29, 2009 at 6:56 PM

    Since you sound like a Bucs fan, how did he do in PGH. in th later part of EACH season? I think I followed him closely from Cinti. He doesn’t look strong in the last 3 months of the year usually. From April on, he is a house on fire.

  21. Hey, look it up - Dec 29, 2009 at 7:53 PM

    Go to bb-ref and check out Bay’s monthly splits. In his entire career, it was only in the 2007 season that he had a poorer second half than a first half. You are making assertions that are entirely untrue.

  22. Grim Reaper - Dec 29, 2009 at 9:44 PM

    Yeah I agree, Bay had it a lot better than Holiday. Bay was hitting with a good lineup in a better hitters park, Holiday had a terrible supporting cast in Oakland in a bad hitting park with ample foul territory. It is not surprising when in STL Holiday came to life and hit a lot better with Albert in the lineup.
    But all that is water under the bridge. Take Bay and put him on the Chicago White Sox, Philly, or the Rockies. Then have Holiday go to Seattle or San Diego, and you know who you would take. All this stuff is straight speculation and means little or nothing right now. Wait to see where they sign and then draft or don’t draft one, none or both.

  23. Chris - Dec 30, 2009 at 11:17 AM

    Jason Bay what a freakin ahole. You could have stayed in Boston where the fans loved you and played for a yearly contender. Instead you just just turned out to be another all for the money ball player. Good luck playing the outfield and hitting in that ballpark. Hope you enjoy playing for a perennial loser organization just to make an extra 3 million bucks. What an idiot.

  24. stretchmark removal cream - Dec 31, 2009 at 6:16 AM

    get article was def a big help in my research of this topic

  25. Lance - Dec 31, 2009 at 1:31 PM

    How is there any debate about which player is better? Nearly every accepted metric shows Holliday to be a better player. Matt Hollidya is a 6 win player, while Jason Bay is a 3 win player due to defense.

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