Last season, the Royals bullpen metrically performed better than the starting rotation.
That being said, saying that the Royals bullpen was better in 2021 was a bit of a dubious honor, as they ranked 19th in ERA and 16th in WHIP, in contrast to the Royals starting rotation, which ranked 24th in ERA and 27th in WHIP. Neither pitching group was all that good last season, but at least the Royals bullpen was the lesser of two evils in 2021.
Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped Royals management from targeting the bullpen an area of focus this Winter.
Prior to the lockout, in an interview with Royals pre and post-game host Josh Vernier on 610 Radio in November, newly-christened general manager JJ Picollo mentioned that improving the bullpen (not necessarily the starting rotation) was an offseason priority for the Royals:
So far, the Royals have demonstrated that priority in early free agent moves, even if they have been low-profile ones that haven’t captured the attention of the national media.
Whether it was the signing of Taylor Clarke, who was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks, or Colten Brewer, Arodys Vizcaino, or Sam Freeman, who were all signed to Minor League deals, it is evident that the Royals front office is committed to improving the bullpen in 2022.
Additionally, it is likely that once the lockout ends, Dayton Moore and Picollo will continue to pursue possible relief options on the free agent market, who could could be signed on cheaper-than-usual deals, especially with Spring Training likely to be delayed (which gives free agents less time negotiate).
And one possible free agent possibility who could help the Royals bullpen is Greg Holland, who just hit free agency after spending the last two seasons with the Royals in a closer/setup hybrid role.
Of course, if the Royals bring back Holland, they may need to re-think his role in the bullpen…
Which could be tough for Mike Matheny and Royals fans who have fond memories of Holland pitching for Kansas City in the late innings back in 2013 and 2014.
The Holland return to Kansas City has been suggested before by Inside the Crown writer David Lesky, who brought up the idea of a Holland return for 2022 in his latest Opening Day roster projection in regards to pitchers:
Here is what Lesky said exactly about Holland in the piece:
People won’t love this, but Greg Holland loves the Royals and the Royals love him. And when he was used a little more sparingly and given time to recover, he was pretty successful last season. He can’t be a guy who pitches three days in a row and even back-to-backs would need to be limited, but if he’s giving you 40-45 innings, he could be a weapon…“2022 Opening Day Roster Projection 1: The Arms” by David Lesky; Inside the Crown
Bringing back Holland, despite an inconsistent 2021 campaign would be a surprising, but not unexpected, move by the Royals front office.
Last season, the Royals brought back former postseason hero Wade Davis, despite Davis immensely struggling in 2019 and 2020 in Colorado. The “nostalgia-based” signing produced mixed results, as Davis posted a 6.75 ERA in 42.2 IP and 40 appearances before ultimately retiring at the conclusion of the 2021 season.
Holland was better than Davis last year, but not considerably so. Holland did post a more palatable 4.85 ERA in 57 appearances and 55.2 IP. However, the 36-year-old reliever’s xERA was much higher at 5.70, and he was also hurt by a 14.8 percent HR/FB rate, nearly 10 percent higher than his rate during the shortened 2020 season.
Thus, it’s not a surprise that Holland posted a -0.2 fWAR, which ranked him 9th of Royals relievers who threw 20 or more innings in 2021, according to Fangraphs.
At the surface level, it seems like the smart decision for the Royals front office would be to stay away from Holland in free agency, especially since he’s on the wrong side of his 30’s at this point in his career.
On the other hand, considering that the Royals could sign him on a pretty reasonable deal (i.e. something in the $1.5 to $3 million AAV range), it is possible that Holland could be of some value, especially if utilized in the right role in the Royals bullpen in 2022.
Here is a look at Holland’s percentile rankings from 2021, via Baseball Savant:
As evidenced from the chart above, hitters found success last season when it came to barreling the ball as well as making hard and productive contact. Additionally, Holland struggled to limit walks last year, as his BB rate ranked in the bottom 20th percentile. Giving hitters that many free passes isn’t ideal for a reliever who also ranks in the bottom first percentile in barrel rate allowed.
As a result, Holland paid dearly for struggling in those two areas, which is reflected in his 2021 ERA.
However, it was interesting to see that Holland’s chase and whiff rate ranked in the 69th and 63rd percentiles, respectively, last season. Those two encouraging marks showed that Holland found success occasionally in terms of getting hitters to swing and miss. He just struggled in terms of putting away batters (36th percentile K rate) and leaving hittable pitches up in the zone.
Here’s an example of Holland showing stellar command with his slider in a crucial spot in the ninth inning, as he gets the Athletics’ Mark Canha to strike out swinging:
Holland threw his slider 48.3 percent of the time last season, and it was not only his most thrown pitch, but also his most effective one. In addition to posting a -3 run value on the pitch, he also generated a 33.1 percent whiff rate, and 27.9 percent K rate on the pitch, according to Savant.
Unfortunately, he could not find the same effectiveness with his four-seam fastball in 2021.
Last year, his four-seamer posted a whiff rate of 19.2 percent and K rate of 12 percent, which was down from the 23.4 percent and 16.2 percent rates he posted in those respective categories in 2020. Additionally, Holland gave up a slugging percentage of .506 on the four-seamer, nearly 200 points higher than the .310 slugging percentage on the pitch a year ago.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising to Royals fans that Holland’s run value of +3 was not only the worst mark of his three-pitch arsenal from 2021, but also a six-run decline from his 2020 run value as well.
Here’s a look at Holland’s fastball getting absolutely pulverized by Cleveland’s Franmil Reyes at Progressive Field in a July 8th game, which won the now “Guardians” the game in the bottom of the ninth:
If the Royals do bring Holland back, it will be interesting to see how Holland’s four-seamer will fare in 2022. In 2020, it was a decent pitch, as he threw it 37.4 percent of the time and generated a run value of -3 on it.
If Holland wants to be successful in what could be his last season in the Big Leagues in 2022, he will need to see the four-seamer be closer in effectiveness to the 2020 version rather than 2021 one.
As I dove into Holland’s splits from 2021, via Fangraphs, it was easy to notice some interesting trends, especially when it came to Holland’s performance in high vs. low leverage situations. To clarify those terms, “low leverage” means that those situations are relatively pressure-less, while “high leverage” situations typically are more pressure-packed (i.e. situations for a team’s best reliever).
Those leverage trends could hint at Holland finding more success in the Royals bullpen in 2022, if he is given a different role from the closer/setup one he had a season ago.
Here’s a look at Holland’s advanced metrics in various different leverage situations from a season ago, according to Fangraphs splits data:
Granted, Holland was unluckier in 2021 in high leverage situations.
He posted a higher K-BB rate in high leverage situations (12.5 percent) than lower leverage ones (11.5 percent). However, his BABIP at .409 was nearly 150 points higher in high leverage situations than low leverage ones, and his strand rate (LOB %) was also 42.1 percent lower in high leverage situations than low leverage ones. This heavily contributes to the wide gap in FIP between the two leverages, which is almost comical when looking at it in retrospect.
What was also interesting though in terms of Holland’s performance in high vs. low leverage situations was the difference in being able to generate groundballs in those different scenarios.
Holland doesn’t possess 90-plus MPH stuff anymore like he did in 2013 and 2014. Hence, generating groundball field outs in crucial situations to get out of innings is important for a veteran reliever like himself.
Here’s a look at how his batted ball data looked in different leverage situations a year ago:
In those crucial spots in the late innings, Holland struggled to keep the ball out of the air, and often, when it did get in the air, it hurt Holland and the Royals, as evidenced by his 41.7 percent HR/FB rate.
On the other hand, in low leverage situations? Holland produced a 45.9 GB rate and a 1.32 GB/FB ratio, both more impressive marks, and a much-needed skillset in middle-inning situations, which he would most likely find himself in, should he make his way back to Kansas City in 2022.
Here’s an example of Holland getting Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez to groundout at Kauffman Stadium in such a low-leverage situation in the 7th inning of a September 29th game:
If Holland can tap into that “groundball-inducing” pitcher more consistently in 2022, like he was in low leverage situations in 2021, then it is possible that he could provide some good value in the 6th and 7th innings for the Royals bullpen.
Of course, the decision to re-sign Holland won’t be an easy one for Moore and the Royals front office.
In addition to Clarke, the Royals also have options in Dylan Coleman and Joel Payamps, who are much younger, coming off much better seasons than Holland, and are projected to make up the middle of the Royals bullpen, according to Roster Resource’s projected Royals Depth Chart for next season.
In fact, let’s take a look at how the three “projected” Royals relievers compared to Holland a season ago, according to Fangraphs:
Granted, Coleman doesn’t have much of a sample compared to the other three, so his campaign last season should be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, Holland still produced the highest HR/FB rate and xFIP, and the lowest fWAR of the four. Those are not necessarily encouraging signs for a possible last go-around for Holland in Kansas City next season.
Holland’s projections are a bit more palatable. Steamer is projecting a 4.55 ERA in 52 IP; ZiPS is projecting a 4.66 ERA in 52 IP; and ATC is projecting a 4.52 ERA in 52 IP. In all three projections, he is still projected to have a K/BB ratio over 2.00, which isn’t great, but is still slightly above or around average at the very least.
All signs point to Holland being at least a serviceable reliever in 2022, though Royals fans have to wonder if Mike Matheny will use him in a demoted role, or thrust him back into high-leverage situations, due to Holland’s veteran status.
And honestly that could be the biggest argument to NOT bringing back Holland.
Matheny has been much better as a manager in KC than in his days in St. Louis where he seemingly always went with the veteran reliever in the most pressure-filled spots. Scott Barlow is Matheny’s guy, and he also grew to use Jake Brentz and Domingo Tapia effectively as well, even though they didn’t have major track records prior to 2021.
So, maybe Matheny would have the discipline to refrain from using Holland in the 8th or 9th, unless it was an absolute emergency. But for some managers, habits can die slowly, and Matheny will feel the pressure to perform in 2022, especially after two losing seasons in his first two years in Kansas City.
Thus, Royals fans could see Matheny revert back to his Cardinals-era strategies if Holland is indeed back with the Royals next season.
The Royals will need to fill out their bullpen once Spring Training begins, whenever that is. They will need to find relievers they can trust, not to mention one who can sign quickly, and be affordable to boot.
Holland could certainly fit that bill…
It is just a matter of whether or not Moore will pull the trigger on it this time around.
Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports