One day, when the Royals are playing in late October, I can hear the voice of Tim McCarver saying “Greg Holland into the game, who you may know was the first draft pick by Dayton Moore to debut in the big leagues. Not Danny Duffy, not Eric Hosmer. Greg Holland.”
Then he’ll throw it to Joe Buck while the Royals preserve the lead and win the pennant/World Series/what have you.
That’ll be a pretty cool memory one day, but Holland has a chance to be much more than a footnote or a blip on Dayton Moore’s resume.
Holland was selected in the 10th round in 2007, Dayton Moore’s first official draft. He debuted with the Royals on August 2 last season after tearing up the Pacific Coast League. He struck out 16.50 batters per nine innings last July.
After a 6.75 ERA in the majors, Holland faced an uphill battle to break camp with the big league club, and with Tim Collins, Louis Coleman and Aaron Crow in the way, he started the season in Omaha before returning to the Show on May 19th.
Since then, he’s been among the most valuable pitchers on the Royals. FanGraphs credits him with 1.1 WAR and a monetary value of $4.6 million. That’s fourth on the team and best among relievers. Baseball-Reference rates him as a 1.7 WAR player, third among Royals pitchers. The B-R ranks can be misleading, though, as Aaron Crow and Louis Coleman are ahead of him, while FanGraphs has Jeff Francis, Felipe Paulino and Luke Hochevar ahead of him.
Holland has been dominant, racking up 49 strikeouts in 39.1 innings in 2011. He’s walked just 11, good for a 4.45 K/BB ratio. In his short (so far) career, he has a 72/19 K/BB ratio.
Often, a strikeout pitcher will also walk a lot of batters. Look at Tim Collins, who struck out 13.3 batters per nine innings but still walked 3.9 per nine. Louis Coleman has a 9.3 K/9 with a 3.5 BB/9. Holland himself walked 3.9 per nine last year with an 11.1 K/9. He’s bucking that trend, walking only 2.5 per nine this year.
Comparing this season and last season seems like night and day, so it’s important to see his minor league numbers to find out which is the real Greg Holland. His H/9 and HR/9 spiked in 2010 in the majors relative to his minor league numbers.
His track record also suggests his control this year may be an aberration. To an extent, that’s not a problem, as he’s always been able to miss bats and had a minor breakout in Omaha last season that allowing 6.4 H/9 that continued this year through today (5.4 and 5.5 H/9 in Omaha and Kansas City respectively). We should expect him to walk more batters overall to more similarly match his career to this point, though.
Or should we?
Holland is getting to a three ball count less frequently this year than he did last year (23% vs. 19.3%) and when he does reach those counts, he’s walked the batter less often (40% vs. 37.9%). Even better, he’s been able to get two strikes on a batter nearly 20% more often than last year (44.8% in 2010 vs. 64.6% this year).
Much of that comes from the fact that Holland is throwing more strikes. Last season, 61.3% of his pitches were strikes, compared to 64% this year.*
*And if you think a percentage point here or there isn’t that much, consider a batter getting, say, 3% more hits over the span of a season. Over 500 at bats, a 3% increase can take a .275 batter and turn him into a .284 hitter. It’s not much, but over a long scale, it adds up.
It helps that Holland has nasty stuff (and since he’s from North Carolina, an article title was born). This is apparent whether you use a scout’s eye or a sabermetrician’s spreadsheet.
Other than Mitch Maier‘s one inning of glory, Holland’s fastball rates as the most valuable per 100 pitches on the Royals. Additionally, his slider is the best on the team. He throws one or the other about 90% of the time.
The fastball runs around 95 mph and has a slight move to his right-hand side:
His out pitch is the slider, which hangs around 87 mph and has a lot of movement down and away from right-handed batters (and down and in to lefties).
What’s better than having good stuff? Being able to wield it to get results. Holland throws his fastball about 45% of the time and his slider about 45% of the time, relying on his best pitches to attack batters.
Comparing heat maps from last year to this year, it looks like Holland has either changed his approach, improved his command or a combination of both. He consistently works on the outside corner to lefties and hits all parts of the plate against righties with the fastball. Last season, he wasn’t as focused on that part of the zone against left-handers.
He’s honed his use of the slider as well, keeping it away from left-handed batters and going down and away against righties. Last year, it seems like he was missing the zone against lefties and wasn’t quite getting it out of reach of righties.
Since he uses two pitches almost exclusively, his pitch sequences could become predictable, but so far, the stuff has been good enough to get by. The typical Holland at bat starts with a fastball for a strike, and the breaking pitches come in behind it. With two strikes, Holland goes to his slider 49% of the time in all two strike counts except full counts. Once it’s full, he throws a fastball 74% of the time, otherwise the fastball only comes into play 39% of the time or less with two strikes.
Holland does have a serviceable curveball, but usually only throws it once he has a strike, and he’s almost guaranteed to go to the fastball when he’s behind in the count.
Looking at his pitch performance, it’s not a surprise why he’d use his slider ore often with two strikes – batters don’t hit it.
Holland has a 17% swinging strike rate and right-handers love to chase it out of the zone.
With all that in mind, can we believe in Holland as the next relief star?
In comparing 2010 Holland with 2011 Holland, we have to look at more than just his 6.75 ERA last year and this year’s 1.37.
Last year, Holland had a terrible strand rate of 59.7% – so two of every five runners he put on scored. This year, he’s gone the complete opposite direction, stranding 91.2% of runners he allows to reach. Batters only slug .283 against him, so most of those batters only reach first, and he also rarely allows more than one batter to even reach.
That being said, the league average strand rate is 72.4% in 2011.
Holland ran into some bad luck last year and he’s been a little lucky this year, so the good news is that he isn’t as bad as he looked last year (on paper) and, while he may not be THIS good, he’s a lot closer to his 2011 self.
Over his professional career, Holland possesses the skills you want in a pitcher. He strikes out batters (9.7 K/9 in the minors, 11.2 in the majors), he induces ground balls (his lowest GB% in the minors was 42%; in 2011 it’s 47% in Kansas City), and he keeps the ball in the ballpark (0.5 HR/9 in 250.2 IP in the minors). If his command and approach are for real (and I suspect that they are), he has the stuff to be a closer, an elite setup man, or potentially, a starter.
He’s been mentioned online as an arm who might get stretched out next year in hopes of landing a rotation spot. He made seven starts in 2008 in Wilmington but otherwise has been used out of the bullpen.
Certainly, he’d have to adjust his pitch selection. He may not have to make drastic changes, but his secondary pitches would have to be used more frequently. The first time through a lineup, great, fastball/slider can get it done. Even the second time through, he can possibly get away with it because his stuff is so good.
That third and fourth time, though. That’s where those secondary pitches need to be used. Batters can adjust midstream, and if advance scouts get a book on Holland, he’ll have to adjust accordingly. Mixing in the curveball and a splitter (which would operate like his changeup) would be necessary.
Further, he would have to mix up his patterns and pitch backwards on occasion. Holland has his potential leaks. It doesn’t take long for batters to realize that he throws a fastball every time on 2-0. And the sliders that batters chase now may end up being spit on after a while when everyone realizes he throws it almost half the time with two strikes. The league adjusted to Zack Greinke in 2010 after his slider destroyed batters all of the 2009 season and he was clearly affected.
So can Holland keep it up and move to the rotation? Sure. As long as he can handle the workload and it doesn’t take too much out of him to where his stuff works differently, I see no reason to keep him out of the running for a spot. I subscribe to the thought that a pitcher’s value is tied to the number of innings he can throw. A good pitcher is useless on the bench, so adding 100 more innings of Greg Holland sounds like a good idea.
That being said, he’s a dynamic pitcher out of the bullpen right now, and there’s a tendency towards inertia in baseball. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
(But I have no problem if they try.)