Monday August 10th, 2009

When he was traded from the Athletics to the Cardinals back on July 24, Matt Holliday suddenly had a lot of things to worry about. He had to scramble to get from New York, where the A's were playing the Yankees, to St. Louis in time for that evening's game with the Cardinals. Off the field, he had to inform his family about the deal and start moving his life halfway across the country to a new town with new people and a new club with new teammates. On the field, he had a substantial adjustment to make, too. He went from being the only heavy hitter in an impotent lineup in Oakland on a team going nowhere to being counted on to boost a struggling offense in St. Louis on a team in the middle of a pennant race. "It's been a little hectic getting everything settled," Holliday said. "My wife had to do a lot of it."

Any burden Holliday's wife, Leslee, could take off her husband's shoulders has been a welcome relief given the pressure he suddenly encountered when he arrived in St. Louis. Since his arrival, Holliday has been charged with nothing less than performing like Albert Pujols Lite in fulfilling a pair of duties: igniting the Cardinals' dormant offense and easing the load Pujols himself has carried for the majority of the season as the one and only true threat in the team's lineup.

Holliday has succeeded on both counts. He has batted an amazing .466/.515/.793 since the deal was made with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 15 games. The Cardinals have gone 10-5 over that time, upped their runs per game from 4.46 to an even 5.0 and increased their lead in the NL Central to two games over the resurgent Cubs.

Holliday's impact on the offense as a whole has been easily apparent. What's less obvious is how much different life is for Pujols. Since the trade, Pujols' numbers are actually down slightly, and while he has received fewer intentional walks (just two since Holliday's arrival compared to six in the 15 games immediately before the trade), Pujols' walk rate in general has not varied noticeably. Pujols had 40 unintentional walks in 96 games before the trade, 0.42 per game. Since the trade he's had seven unintentional walks in 15 games, or 0.46 per game. Pujols has not maintained his almost superhuman pace over the past two weeks, but this being Pujols, his numbers are still pretty impressive:

Holliday shrugs off his direct impact on the game's best slugger. "I don't look at it like I'm here to protect Albert," he said recently. "I came here to help improve the team in general and help guys fit in the lineup better. He's in a class of his own, but overall, to be a good team you have to have a great offense one through eight. Albert and I aren't going to get a hit every game. [Teams] wouldn't pitch to Mickey Mantle if he was hitting behind Albert."

If there is one man who might know better than anyone just how much of an impact Holliday's arrival has had on Pujols, it is Dave Duncan, the Cardinals' longtime pitching coach. During each game, Duncan sits in the dugout watching the man on the mound with eagle-eyed intensity, specifically charting how many hittable pitches they are serving up to Cardinals batters. So it could be said with some certainty that Duncan, who has been a coach in the bigs for over three decades, is the world's leading authority on what has become one of baseball's most intellectual questions of the summer: Is there such a thing as protecting hitters, and if so, is Pujols getting some protection since the arrival of Holliday?

For generations, pitchers, coaches and managers have all warned about the dangers of navigating a lineup that is stacked with fearsome hitters because, the thinking goes, they will be less able to pitch around any one hitter if the man behind him is equally capable of hurting them. But Duncan said that at least when it comes to Pujols, the most feared hitter in the game, that's mostly been a myth. Asked about the type and number of hittable pitches Pujols is likely to get in an at-bat, Duncan said the man in the on-deck circle does not cause as much variation as some might think, and that very often, he has no impact whatsoever.

As evidence, Duncan pointed to a recent game with the Astros. Facing rookie Bud Norris, who was making just his second major league appearance and might have been especially inclined to not be victimized by a hitter of Pujols' stature, Pujols got one pitch to hit the entire game, according to Duncan. Holliday had eight. In other words, the presence of another stud slugger behind Pujols did not result in pitchers choosing to attack him rather than risk walking him and facing Holliday with a man on base. "Very seldom is [the number of good pitches to hit] based on who's behind Pujols," said Duncan.

That certainly fits the conclusion arrived at in Baseball Prospectus' 2006 book Baseball Between The Numbers, which stated, "There's no evidence that having a superior batter behind another batter provides the initial batter with better pitches to hit; if it does, those batters see no improvement in performance as a result."

Despite Holliday's hot stretch, opponents would still much rather have him beat them than the man who is on track to win his second straight NL MVP award.

"(Holliday's) a good player and he was one of the dominant right-handed hitters in this league for a couple of years, but still, the guy you gotta get out is Albert Pujols," Mets manager Jerry Manuel told the New York Daily News recently. "I got a chance to (go after) Pujols or Holliday, I'm going with Holliday. I'm not going to mess with Pujols."

Pitchers, the best ones at least, contend that they won't pitch around anyone, unless they're ordered to. "Sometimes the manager takes it out of your hands," said Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, a former Cy Young winner. "Unless the pitcher's on deck, I don't do that to anyone. I'm trying to get outs."

Duncan said that with rare exceptions, such as Barry Bonds in his prime, he never tells his pitchers to avoid certain hitters. "When there's a significant hitter and the hitter behind him is significantly worse, then you might pitch around him," he said. But Duncan added that it's rare that a major league lineup would be so dependent on just one hitter. Regardless of how much protection, if any, that Holliday has given Pujols, the Cardinals' lineup is certainly no longer a one-man show.

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