KC Royals: Is Holland’s story taking a wrong turn?

Until recently, a former star closer’s attempt to earn a bullpen job with the KC Royals was going almost perfectly. But do two bumpy performances signal a downturn for him?

If there is a spring training feel-good story in the making for the KC Royals, it may be Greg Holland‘s effort to win a job with his old team. His quest to make the Opening Day roster, four full seasons after he threw his last pitch for the club, has all the ingredients of a happy ending.

From 2013 until a torn UCL sidelined him late in the 2015 campaign and ruled him out for the postseason, Holland was money at the back end of the Royals’ bullpen. His 125 saves during that span helped return the club to contention and the World Series.

The Royals non-tendered Holland after the ’15 campaign; without a team, he spent 2016 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, then became Colorado’s closer and saved 41 games in ’17. But control problems have plagued Holland since and his one good stint since 2017 came the following year when, after a miserable first half with the Cardinals resulted in his release, he went 2-0 with a 0.84 ERA in 24 games with Washington. The Nationals, though, didn’t re-sign him and he didn’t fare well with Arizona in 2019.

The KC Royals signed him early this year and invited him to spring training as a non-roster player. The 34-year old wasted no time distinguishing himself from most of the other 38 pitchers competing for jobs when camp opened–over his first three one-inning appearances, he struck out four and didn’t give up any runs.

But the first sign of any trouble came last Tuesday when Holland pitched an inning against Arizona and gave up his first run, and home run, of the spring. The second, and most concerning, sign came Friday against the Angels when he gave up three hits, including another homer, and two runs in a one-inning appearance. His ERA ballooned to 5.40.

For a younger pitcher not haunted by four years of inconsistency and control problems, Holland’s last two outings could be written off as typical incidents of the inconsistency spring training breeds when pitchers use different outings to work on different things. But for Holland, his last two performances could trigger speculation that all may not be well.

For his part, Holland seems to be taking the last two games in the stride expected of a veteran of over 10 previous professional spring camps. Speaking to MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan after Friday’s contest, he sounded content with his pitch competitiveness, quality and control.

At this point, the evidence against Holland is too thin to warrant grave concern. His first three games were stellar; he has seven strikeouts in five innings (12.65 SO9), and his Friday effort proves how swiftly and easily one inning–or even a pitch or two–can wreck a small sample Cactus League ERA. It’s also too early to ascribe much significance to Holland giving up home runs in each of his last two innings–over nine seasons, he’s averaged a homer every 15.5 innings.

Perhaps most encouraging is Holland’s control. Although his BB9 hasn’t been below 4.1, and has exceeded 5.0 four times, since 2014, he hasn’t walked any of the 20 batters he’s faced this spring.

It is too soon, then, for the KC Royals to discount Holland. He’s given them more good than bad so far and spring training is rarely an accurate measure of a season to be. Holland’s story can still end well.

But with over 30 pitchers still in camp, there may be little margin for error.

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Greg Holland’s attempt to win a roster spot with the KC Royals hit a couple of recent bumps in the road. His chances to make the club still remain good, but he’ll need to return to the form of his first three spring outings.

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