Derek Holland’s sudden resurgence was one of the few bright spots of the 2018 season. Holland had signed a minor-league contract after an abysmal three-year stretch in which he posted a 5.50 ERA, but he rebounded quite well. He managed a career-best strikeout rate and kept his ERA at 3.57. Overall, it was his best season since 2018. It was impressive enough that the new front office, who had no emotional connection to Holland on the 2018 team, rewarded Holland with the largest contract the Giants would sign this offseason.
So far, that hasn’t panned out. On the field, Holland hasn’t shown any glimmers of his 2018 self. Right now, he’d probably kill for a 5.50 ERA because in 36 2/3 innings, Holland has given up 30 runs. He’s already given up more than half the number of homers he gave up last year and even if he’s on pace to have another career-best strikeout rate he’s also walking more batters than ever before. Add it all together and you’re left with a 7.36 ERA and a 6.44 FIP.
Off the field, Holland has been the sole voice of dissidence in a clubhouse that’s probably frustrated with the both the quantity and severity of the front office’s decisions. If you count Mac Williamson’s DFA before the season started, the Giants have already cut six players from the roster. They’ve manipulated the injured list to rotate guys in and out. It has to be frustrating and stressful for a player to not know if they’ll have a job by the end of the week or if they’ll make their next start.
If Holland weren’t the biggest signing of the offseason, he’d be a DFA candidate. His performance has been worse than Yangervis Solarte’s or Gerardo Parra’s, and the Giants have enough options to field a roster without him. However, Holland will make a guaranteed $7 million this year with a club option for 2020 for $6.5 million. Right now, he’s a sunk cost, and the Giants are going to give him more time to figure things out before they send him on his way.
Probably, Holland isn’t going to give up 40 homers if he pitches 160 innings this year. The 27 percent HR/FB rate will probably come down on its own. The ball’s not that juiced.
The sole encouraging thing about Holland’s year are the strikeouts. He has a 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. At first, I thought that number was just inflated by the fact that he’s facing more batters in an inning. When a pitcher is giving up a lot of hard contact, the only reliable way to get someone out is by striking them out. Sometimes a pitcher’s strikeouts per nine will rise despite them not striking out a greater percentage of batters.
There’s some of that going on with Holland, but he’s striking out a career-best 25.8 percent of batters, and his swinging strike rate has also hit a high-water mark at 11.8. The only Giants starter with better numbers in either category is Tyler Beede.
Much of that has been driven by his increased usage of the slider. Previously, Holland threw his slider around 25 percent of the time, but now he’s mixing it in once every three pitches. Looking at the PITCHf/x classifications, Holland is throwing his slider about as often as he’s throwing his four seamer. Holland has also moved away slightly from the sinker.
The slider has been his best at getting swings and misses, but it’s also the pitch that misses the zone most often. The cavalcade of sliders might be driving the increased walk rate just as its also driving the strikeout rate.
Another thing that stands out is that PITCHf/x has only tracked eight curveballs thrown by Holland while Statcast has tracked a typical amount of curves. (Statcast still has Holland as throwing the highest percentage of sliders in his career). What I think is going on is that PITCHf/x is misclassifying Holland’s knuckle curve as a slider, and that might be a larger issue. If two of his pitches are indistinguishable from cameras, there probably isn’t a notable difference for the hitter, and that’s important when considering the handedness of the batter.
Holland, like most pitchers, doesn’t throw his slider to righties as often. For them, he prefers to use his knuckle curve which has more downward movement. Since his curve hasn’t been as sharp, righties are torching it just as they would a slider. Hitters are slugging .818 against his curve this year, and without that pitch, he has no answer when he’s at platoon disadvantage. Lefties have a .244 wOBA against Holland this year which is roughly what Brandon Crawford has on the year. Righties though, have a .433 wOBA against him which is what Joey Gallo, MVP candidate, is doing.
To make matters worse, Holland has faced a disproportionate amount of righties this year. He’s faced 130 righties and only 37 lefties. Until he can figure out the problems with the curve, he should probably be reserved as a lefty specialist. He has to stay on the roster for better or worse. It might as well be in a role where he might re-establish some confidence.