ST. LOUIS -- Matt Holliday is not a guy who leaves much room for chance. The St. Louis Cardinals' All-Star left fielder is extraordinarily disciplined. From his eating habits to his preparation for a season, his work ethic is rarified air in baseball.
Every time Holliday walks from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box he puts both hands on the end of his bat and pulls it up in the air over his head. Next he taps the inside of his left foot, then his right. It is a quirky habit -- all baseball players have them -- but with Holliday it is one small gesture of a larger, intense baseball regimen.
It is in this, his ultra-disciplined lifestyle, that Holliday plays a quiet but huge role in the leadership of the Cardinals' clubhouse. For anyone spending time around him, it is hard not to notice the way he takes care of himself. Teammates see this and realize performance and production in baseball are not just by talent alone.
This sort of intangible aspect of a baseball player is difficult for front offices to know before they acquire a player. When Holliday signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Cardinals after the 2009 season, many analysts projected that the Cardinals overpaid for a player turning 30 years old who had spent most of his career compiling numbers in Coors Field. While Holliday doesn’t receive the type of national attention some of the power hitters the likes of Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder receive, he's been one of baseball's best hitters the past three seasons and has lived up to the high price of the deal, and in 2012 he has become an MVP candidate. He has to be considered one of baseball's most underrated players.
John Mozeliak, the Cardinals general manager, recalls Holliday’s early years playing for Colorado and says even then the Cardinals had identified him as somebody who they would try to acquire, should an opportunity ever become available.
"I recall trying to work out a deal with the Rockies before they ended up trading him to Oakland," Mozeliak said. "We weren’t successful, but in the end our patience paid off, because we ended up doing a better deal in the end with Oakland."
In 2009, the Cardinals traded third baseman Brett Wallace, outfielder Shane Peterson and pitcher Clayton Mortensen for Holliday. After hitting .353 with 55 RBIs in 63 games with St. Louis, the Cardinals signed Holliday -- with Albert Pujols on the team -- to the richest contract in club history
Beyond his talent on the field, Mozeliak had always heard Holliday was a high-character guy, but until the Cards acquired him Mozeliak didn't realize his commitment to the community, to his work ethic and to his health.
Holliday, at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, is now in his ninth year in the majors. He's hitting .309 and leads the National League with 90 RBIs heading into Wednesday's game against the Pirates (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). Over his past seven games he's hitting .452 with 14 hits and nine RBIs. Not only is he among the leading MVP candidates, he's putting together an impressive career. Among active players, his .314 lifetime average ranks sixth. Holliday’s ability to consistently get on base has given the Cardinals a solid core to build the team around.
Holliday says his key is his ability to hit the ball the other way.
"It’s really been the strength of my career and my swing, and sort of the hitter that I’ve tried to be is somebody that uses the whole field and can hit the ball the other way," Holliday said. "I think that’s probably the most important thing for getting on base. Obviously you can’t swing at a lot of bad pitches. [You need] to get the walks."
Manager Mike Matheny likes how Holliday has a good idea of his strike zone.
"When he gets in trouble he’s leaving his strengths, but overall he’s done a nice job of when [pitchers] make a mistake he’s got the physical ability to get the bat on the ball," Matheny said. "He has the strength to do it with some pretty dangerous velocity. So he has a unique mix of power and discipline that when he’s going well he really stays with his approach and makes the pitchers come to him."
Holliday also sets an example in other ways.
"He’s just one of those guys that grinds out at-bats as well as anybody," Mozeliak said. "He is just the perfect teammate in that regard. He plays every day; even when he has minor injuries he plays through them -- just a very tough guy."
In so-called "high-leverage" situations, when the game is closest, Holliday is hitting .307/.406/.568, with six home runs in 77 at-bats.
"I think that there are times when emotions get involved and doubt becomes an issue; you are not wanting to let your team down," Holliday said about hitting in clutch situations. "I think really, if you prepare yourself to have the same mental approach, whether it’s the first inning of a spring training game to the seventh game of the World Series, if you can have the same mindset of getting at the ball where you want it and hitting it hard and not worrying about the results, I think that’s your best chance as far as consistently putting a good at-bat out there.
"Really, if you try harder, you’re going to swing faster. It’s really counterproductive to what you are trying to do. A lot of your best at-bats are when you are at spring training, when there’s really no emotion or pressure. If you can take all the peripheral stuff out of [hitting] and just focus on finding a pitch in my strike zone and put my good swing on it, that’s really your best chance."
Mozeliak said playing in St. Louis has a unique dynamic.
"The thing about playing in St. Louis is there is a lot of pressure to win," Mozeliak said. "There was a lot of pressure on him when he signed that contract, a lot of pressure this year because we didn’t have Albert, and so he has to carry the weight maybe that normal [players] don’t," Mozeliak said. "So I think at times, even though he wants to simplify it and believe that I’m taking every at-bat one at-bat at a time, I do think he wears it [on his sleeve] a little bit."
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There’s no way around it. You can talk about Pujols leaving, you can talk about the team giving contracts to Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Lance Berkman, but Holliday is the guy the franchise sought to acquire and eventually sign to that huge contract. When asked about the weight of this and what he hopes to accomplish for the rest of his career in St. Louis, Holliday said simply he wants to be somebody the organization "can be proud of."
In St. Louis that is quite a heavy load to carry, because baseball in the Gateway to the West is more like a pilgrimage. A long winding road weaving in and out of generations -- great-grandparents, grandparents, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts -- pays homage to the greats of the past.
"I think at the end of my career I hope that people will just appreciate that I played as hard as I could," Holliday said. "That I was a good teammate, that I represented the organization in a positive light my entire time that I was here, that I was a good player."