Holliday's mentor never too far to help
Brother Josh, Oklahoma State's head coach, a dependable presence
JUPITER, Fla. -- As he stood in the Oklahoma State batting cages this winter watching younger brother Matt take swing after swing after swing, Josh Holliday couldn't resist the urge to reminisce.
Josh thought back to a series of similar sessions the two shared back in the fall of 2003, on the campus of another Big 12 university, when Matt was an up-and-coming prospect in the Rockies' system and he an aspiring college coach in transition. Matt had traveled to the University of Texas at Austin seeking guidance.
The younger Holliday arrived frustrated by what he perceived to be misguided instruction and was determined to right his swing before heading off to the Arizona Fall League. His brother played part instructor, part psychologist in the process.
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Josh encouraged Matt to let go of any external expectations, to stop trying to feed this outside desire that he swing for the fences. What an ideal fit he would be in Coors Field, everyone else thought when they saw flashes of Matt's power. That was not, however, who Matt wanted to be. He knew he couldn't be pigeonholed into such a mold, either, if he wanted to emerge elite.
As Matt vented, Josh suggested a few mechanical adjustments, mental tweaks and a focus on using the whole field instead of pulling so many pitches. Matt adopted all the ideas willingly and almost immediately settled on the belief that this would be the identity he'd ride to sustained success.
"Hitting, a lot of times, is a feel thing," Matt said. "You can hear it and see it, but until you feel that feeling -- whether it's through drills or just one day getting the swing feel the right way -- you won't start repeating it. I felt like that was when I first began to understand it, feel it and repeat it."
After hitting just .253 in Double-A that season, 2003, Matt left Austin and thrived against advanced AFL pitching. He broke into the Majors the following April and hit .290 in 121 games.
And so it was natural that when Matt felt he was at a career crossroads again at the conclusion of the 2012 season, he sought out the voice that he knew would know him best, the one who had helped him tap into his potential nearly a decade earlier, the one who had been there to watch out for him for so many years before that.
He called his brother -- now the head coach of the Oklahoma State baseball team -- and told him he was coming to town.
"I think athletes always go back to people they trust," Josh said in a recent phone conversation. "Matt's got a good idea of who he is. He has a strong culture of coaches that he has a lot of respect for. He sees [Cardinals hitting coach John] Mabry as a great fit already. I'm just a trustworthy, positive person in his life who has always been there. I love him. He's my little brother. I'm always going to look out for him."
Josh had long been protective, as most big brothers are, and had transitioned naturally into both teacher and confidant long before he or Matt left home. He would offer tips in the backyard and on the nearby community field. He had his own budding baseball career, but there was something especially rewarding that Josh found about investing in Matt.
Time together, though, had grown scarce in recent years, as the two brothers pursued their own careers and adjusted to the demands of their growing families. The two continued to talk on the phone regularly -- Josh giving advice only when asked -- but the in-person interaction came in short spurts.
Baseball, however, ceased to become the center point of that relationship last October, when the Hollidays were shaken with news that Kathy, the matriarch of the family, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. She underwent surgery while Matt was playing in the National League Championship Series.
That made Matt's decision to move his family to Stillwater, Okla., during the first week of 2013 an even easier one. Relationships were as much a focus as baseball, and, as Josh described, it was "like old times" when the two family units merged for a month.
"My brother and I and our families probably spent more time together in those four weeks than the last 10 years, just because of our schedules," Matt said. "To get a chance to spend almost a whole month together and have dinner together almost nightly was a real treat for us and something we really enjoyed."
Kathy, who is now in remission, joined them as well.
But before sitting down for family dinners, plenty of work would get done. One of Josh's first tasks was to get his brother to stop picking apart his deficiencies from 2012. Though Matt's .295 batting average was his lowest since his rookie season, other numbers pointed to a player hardly past his prime.
Matt led the Cardinals with 102 RBIs, 36 doubles, and a .379 on-base percentage hitting from the No. 3 hole, a place in the batting order that had long belonged to Albert Pujols. Matt led the club with 55 multihit games and drove in 13 game-winning runs.
It wasn't just on a club level that his numbers stood out. From a league perspective, he was also quietly one of the best, ranking in the National League's top 10 in on-base percentage, RBIs, hits (177), walks (75) and runs scored (95).
"As I told him, he had times last year where he was brilliant," Josh said. "He had stretches where he was as good as he's ever been in his career. Ballplayers, sometimes, as good as they are, have to be reminded that they're that good and not dwell on the downturns."
For Matt, it just wasn't good enough.
The strikeout total (a career-worst 132) was too high, and the periods of subpar production too long. Matt did not feel entirely comfortable with the mechanics of his swing, and he knew adjustments had to be made to his routine in order to prevent the recurring back pain he felt during the season.
Others noticed it, too.
"He's at the point now where the swing that he had before was really high torque, and body parts are the things that suffer for somebody as strong as he is," Mabry said. "So out of necessity, sometimes players cut back both mechanically and with workload. And I'm all for that as well. Those are things you have to identify throughout your whole career and make those changes according to you and your body."
Josh, who had watched almost every one of Matt's at-bats last season, relayed what he saw and, as he did nine years earlier, offered his thoughts. Trusting the guidance, Matt shortened his leg kick and lowered his hands. He kept his body closed longer during his swing, something that he's hopeful will help him against right-handed pitchers in particular.
"It was nothing earth-shattering," Josh said, "but I think there is always comfort in working through things with someone you trust."
The brothers spent about an hour in the batting cage, almost daily, in addition to the conditioning work that is a normal part of Matt's offseason routine.
"He has a wealth of knowledge about hitting," Matt said. "I felt like this would be a good opportunity for us to spend a good chunk of time together and really get my swing to where I wanted it coming into Spring Training. Some of the adjustments that I made, I think they're going to be helpful."
Mabry, in his first year as the Cardinals' top hitting coach, lauded the work his left fielder did over the winter. He wants to know more about it, too, which is why he has already reached out to Josh. The two plan to have a phone conversation soon.
Unabashedly, Mabry endorses Matt's desire to seek hitting help elsewhere.
"The guys that know you best are sometimes the guys that you turn to -- I'm all for it," Mabry said. "If he's comfortable with it and is getting good advice -- which I'm sure that he is -- more power to him. I'm here to support him in any way that I can. It's his game, and he's responsible for it. He's taking responsibility. When somebody does that, they're doing what they should be doing."
Mabry has added to the information, when necessary, this spring, but he has mostly just watched and provided positive reinforcement. He's also encouraged Holliday to stick with his plan to cut down on the number of swings he takes this season.
Holliday will do that by shortening some of his batting-practice sessions and perhaps forgoing others altogether throughout the season. Sacrificing quantity while still ensuring quality repetitions, he hopes, will help prevent the wear and tear he put his body through a year ago.
Durability has long been a point of pride for Holliday. Since the start of 2006, he's played at least 155 games in five of seven seasons. He's spent a total of only 30 days on the disabled list during that span. Even while nursing back pain, Holliday led the club in games played (157) in 2012.
Whether it's because he's on a team with several stars or because a seven-year, $120 million contract carries expectations, Holliday's sheer reliability doesn't seem to get sufficient recognition.
"He's somebody that our team is definitely built around," outfielder Jon Jay said. "For a manager, the best thing that you can have is a player who, you know what you're going to get out of him. You look at Matt's numbers, and they're always there. It's all about producing. You look at what he did in Colorado in '07, he pretty much carried that team to the World Series. He comes here and helps do the same thing."
Usually one to shine in Spring Training, Holliday's Grapefruit League results this year have thus far been underwhelming. Not evident in the numbers, though, is the hard contact he's making with regularity and the comfort he's gaining through continuing the work that began in Oklahoma.
Holliday's batting average has started to tick up lately, too. He entered Monday having hit safely in five of his last seven games; he recorded four hits in six at-bats over the weekend.
"He's the kind of guy we know is going to be an MVP talent every year," manager Mike Matheny said. "He looks good. He looks like he has less movement, shorter. Those are really good adjustments to make. He's getting really close timing-wise, and timing is everything in this game. It would be nice timing for us for him to have everything right in the next week."
Back in Stillwater, Josh is occupied with the collegiate season. His nationally ranked Cowboys squad opened conference play last weekend. He still finds time to keep an eye on his brother, though. He notes the numbers and watches the games, even if on a delay.
And in those moments, Josh couldn't be prouder.
"I know Matt is hungry to put together the type of season that the Cardinals need to help them get to the World Series," Josh said. "I think he's really excited about the season ahead and how good he feels going into it. I'm just a loving brother that watches all the games and provides encouragement when needed. I celebrate the good moments with him and am there if there are down times."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.