Without a doubt, in a relatively tame hot stove winter for the Kansas City Royals, the signing of “Dirty South” Greg Holland to a minor league contract created some buzz in Royals fan circles. While Holland is far from the back-to-back All Star closer he was in 2013 and 2014, the return of the 34-year-old reliever not only brings some much required depth to the bullpen, but also adds much needed fan fare to a roster that needs to hook KC sports fans in the wake of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run.
But what are the Royals getting in Holland in 2020? Will he be a key contributor to the Royals bullpen next season? Or will he fizzle out, most likely released by the end of Spring Training?
Let’s take a look at what the Holland situation presents to the Royals in Spring Training.
How has Holland been since leaving Kansas City?
It’s easy to forget that Holland was one of the best closers in baseball for a short while, and could be considered one of the best closers in Royals history as well. His tenure is often overshadowed by Wade Davis, who took over as closer in 2015 after Holland went down to a torn ligament that he’d been pitching through for almost two years (he eventually got surgery in January after the Royals World Series run, though he did not pitch that postseason). However, while Davis was pretty dominant from 2014 and 2015 as a setup man, Holland still was an effective Royals’ go-to-guy in the ninth, as he has the fourth-most career saves in Royals history.
Though Davis is more fondly remembered by Royals fans for shutting the door on opponents during the Royals World Series run in 2015, it’s easy to forget that Holland was pretty damn good during the Royals’ AL Pennant run of 2014, where they trucked through the AL playoffs undefeated (amazing to think about in retrospect). In the video below, Holland reminds us that he was nails in the ninth during the 14 run, and was key to Kansas City near-World Series run.
After missing all of 2016 due to Tommy John surgery, Holland signed a one-year contract with the Colorado Rockies, and he continued to be an effective, though flawed, closer in the National League. Holland saved 41 games and posted a 1.1 WAR over 57 innings pitched, but his ERA was 3.61, far from the 1.21 and 1.44 marks he posted during his All-Star campaigns. What seemed to be Holland’s struggle was his dip in command, as his K/BB ratio, which was a legendary 5.72 and 4.50 in 2013 and 2014, was only 2.69 in 2017. While that was an improvement from his 1.88 ratio in his final season in Kansas City, it still belied that Holland was not going to be the lockdown ninth-inning pitcher he once was.
Unfortunately for “Dirty South”, things went south in a “dirty way” after leaving Colorado at the conclusion of the 2017 season. Holland made the transition to Eastern Missouri, as he joined the Cardinals, albeit to disastrous results. Holland’s command fell off a cliff, as he posted a 7.92 ERA in 32 appearances, which also included a 1.00 K/BB ratio, 2.24 WHIP and 4.56 FIP, all career worsts. The Cardinals ended up releasing Holland after the porous stint, and the Nationals took a flyer on him, which ended up being a win-win for both Holland and the Nats. Holland rebounded and finished 2018 strong with a 0.84 ERA and three saves over 24 appearances in D.C..
The stellar campaign led to a one-year deal with the Diamondbacks, who immediately made him their closer, which yielded early results. But even though Holland saved 17 games and put in 35.2 innings of work in Arizona, he had a disastrous July where he posted a 13.50 ERA and gave up 10 runs in 6.2 innings of work. This led to him being released in the beginning of August, and even though he was picked up again by the Nationals, he wasn’t impressive enough to earn a spot on their 40-man roster, and they let him become a free agent after the 2019 season.
What are the Royals getting in Holland’s return?
Lack of consistent control and command has dogged Holland since leaving Kansas City, though there were certainly signs of fading during 2015 (however, it’s hard to figure out if his regression that year was due to injury or lack of effectiveness). If you look at his Statcast numbers in the image below, you can see his struggles with walk rate and giving up more hard hits over the past three seasons.
Over the past two years, Holland has posted walk rates of 15.1 and 15.8 percent, which is nearly seven points above the MLB average of 8.3 percent. While Holland did boost his K rate from 22.2 percent in 2018 to 27 percent in 2019, hitters did make him pay more often when they made contact, as hitters hard hit percentage against him rose from 31.1 percent in 2018 to 36.8 percent in 2019. So, while Holland might have had some early success as Diamondbacks closer early in the season, it is obvious that according to the metrics, he was teetering a thin line, and that ended up biting him in the butt come July last year in Arizona.
If Royals fans examine his pitch tracking over the past five years, it’s obvious that Holland has lost effectiveness of his fastball, which is why he has failed to be the dominant closer he once was. During 2013 and 2014, Holland, according to Pitch Info, averaged 96.9 MPH and 96.7 MPH on his fastball. Correspondingly, according to Statcast, he utilized the pitch the most (57.6 and 54.8 percent in 2013 and 2014, respectively), and was pretty effective with it, as he had a put out percentage of 26.1 percent and 20 percent in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
But more importantly, his fastball set up his slider, which has always been his most effective secondary pitch throughout his career. In 2013, his slider had a put out percentage of 36.8 percent (and was utilized 39.8 percent of the time) and in 2014 it remained stable at 36.4 percent (and he used it more, throwing it 42.9 percent of the time). Without a doubt, Holland’s fastball-slider combo was a big reason why he was an All-Star closer with the Royals during that two-year span.
However, the fastball velocity dipped significantly post-Tommy John, especially the past couple of years. His fastball declined to 94.2 MPH in 2015, to 93.7 in 2017, to 92.9 in 2018 and finally to 91.8, according to Pitch Info. Thus, it’s not a surprise that the fastball has struggled to get batters out for Holland, as it only had a put out percentage of 14.7 in 2019. Furthermore, while the fastball was his primary pitch in 2019, he only threw it 3.7 percent more than his slider and from 2015-2017, his slider was actually his most-thrown pitch. Take a look at the metrics in the image from Statcast below and it’s easy to see the progression from the lack of confidence in his fastball over the years, which ultimately correlates with his regression.
The big question will be if Holland can regain anything on his fastball in Kansas City. Even if he can get it up to the 93 MPH range, that can make a big difference. When he was averaging 93 MPH in Washington in 2018, he showed glimpses of his old self. However, when the velocity was below 93 MPH, as it was in St. Louis and Arizona, he struggled with walks and command, which made him not just a lackluster closer, but a poor Major League reliever in general.
What does Holland’s presence mean for the rest of the bullpen?
Despite the Royals losing a 103 games last year, the bullpen was actually not horrendous, and could be credited as a reason why the Royals didn’t finish last in the Central division. The Royals ranked 17th in the league in bullpen WAR in 2019, which can mostly be credited to a strong second half in which they ranked 11th in bullpen WAR. Ian Kennedy salvaged his career in Kansas City somewhat, as he saved 30 games, and led Royals relievers in WAR at 1.4. However, the biggest surprise contributors were Scott Barlow, who finished with a 1.1 WAR over 70.1 IP and lefty Tim Hill, who posted a 0.5 WAR and 3.63 ERA over 39.2 innings of work. Add in groundball specialist Kevin McCarthy, who tied Hill in WAR at 0.5, and induced the highest groundball rate of Royals relievers at 58.3 percent, and one can see why the Royals are feeling optimistic about their bullpen in 2020.
However, beyond Kennedy, Barlow, Hill, and McCarthy, the Royals middle relief produces more questions than answers, not a good sign considering the rotation could have its share of struggles for a third-straight season. Jorge Lopez and Jesse Hahn are former starters who could thrive in reliever roles (Lopez was actually better in relief in 2019, but was thrown into starting duty due to injuries), but they are relatively unproven as full-time bullpen arms. Furthermore, Kyle Zimmer and Randy Rosario showed flashes of potential last year, but there are major concerns that they can be effective enough relievers at the Major League level.
Hence, with those concerns in middle relief for the Royals, it is not surprising that Dayton Moore took a flyer not only Holland, but former Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal as well, in order to give the Royals bullpen some insurance.
So let’s say Holland or Rosenthal or both make the roster out of Spring Training? Who would be most at risk to lose their roster spot? The most likely bet would be Kyle Zimmer, who is out of options and put up a horrendous line in his debut season a year ago. Zimmer is the modern-day Rick Vaughn: amazing stuff, but horrible control. Last year, he had a walk rate of 18.9 percent, which was the highest mark for a Royal last season by almost 3 percent. While Zimmer stuff is electric, the Royals could only use him in mop up duty when the game was already well-decided on either end. Without the ability to send him to the minors, the Royals will need to see more from the former first-round pick this Spring if he wants to break camp with the Major League club out of Spring Training. If Zimmer struggles in any way this Spring, don’t be surprised to see Holland take his place on the 40-man roster.
Final thoughts on Holland
It’s doubtful that Holland will be the closer he once was with the Royals. While it’s easy to think the days of “HDH” (Herrera-Davis-Holland) will be rekindled at the K in 2020, it’s highly possible that Holland won’t even make the 40-man roster out of Spring Training. His fastball velocity is not trending in the right direction, and the fact that he did not see a call up with the Nationals at any point last seasons is also a concerning sign. There’s a reason the Royals signed him to a minor-league contract: Moore, manager Mike Matheny and the Royals want to see what they got first before they give him a spot in the bullpen.
The jury is still out on Holland in 2020. Royals fans will have to see him pitch first in Surprise and in the Cactus League before we can make any real judgments on what his potential impact will be on the Royals in 2020. However, if Holland can see a tick in his velocity, and continue to be effective with his slider, then not only will he help rekindle his career in his return to the Royals and the American League, but he could help this Royals team surprise a bit and be more competitive than the experts think.