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Two possible reasons why Derek Holland is one of the five worst pitchers in baseball

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It’s a bad look for us to look at how bad Derek Holland has been, but he’s been so bad that it’s worth discussing.

Chicago White Sox v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Derek Holland has given up 15 home runs in 18 appearances. That’s 15 home runs in 51.2 IP. That’s a 2.54 HR/9. That’s bad. Really bad. Not the worst in baseball bad, but in the top five:

  1. Dan Straily - BAL (3.77)
  2. Drew Smyly - TEX (3.00)
  3. David Hess - BAL (2.77)
  4. Mike Foltynewicz - ATL (2.74)
  5. Derek Holland - SF (2.54)

These five have had disastrous seasons. Straily, Smyly, and Holland have lost their spots in the rotation. In only five of his appearances this season has Holland not allowed a run.

When Derek Holland comes into the game, you know the Giants have lost it. But why is Derek Holland so bad?

First, it’s not really fair to single out one player on a rebuilding roster. Every single player on it is supposed to be unwatchably bad — that’s what rebuilding is about. And Derek Holland is no stranger to averaging a 2+ HR/9 — he was doing that as recently as 2017, when it looked like his career was over.

Whatever magic the Giants worked last year both lowered that HR/9 to 1.0 and helped him register a 107 ERA+. He was one of the better starting pitchers in the league, working primarily with a 92 mph 2-seam fastball (or sinker) and a slider. A glance at the Statcast data proves that’s still his combo and that there has been no drop off in pitch velocity or movement versus last year. So... again... why has Derek Holland been so bad?

Statcast isn’t everything and it doesn’t always give us an easy answer — but it can help us understand the easy answer we intuit just by watching him try to pitch. To wit:

With the same average velocity fastball and fastball spin as last season (91.4 mph & 2,371 rpm), batters are getting average exit velocity off the bat two miles per hour greater than in 2018 (88.1 mph vs. 86.6 mph) despite the same average launch angle of 11 degrees. The hard hit rate (Statcast’s view of all contact that registers at 95 mph+ off the bat) is up to 43.1% this season, up dramatically from last year’s 35.4% and well above the league average of 34.3%.

[A quick aside: that’s virtually the same hard hit rate that Madison Bumgarner has this year, which actually should call into question my constant assertion that Bumgarner is “back”.]

Statcast’s “Barrel” rate looks at contact and launch angle to measure the rate of balls that hit off the sweet spot of the bat. This is the most punishing type of contact. The league average is 6.3%. Last year, Holland’s was at an impressive 6.6%. Heading into this afternoon’s game, Holland’s pitches in 2019 had been barreled 15.9% of the time.

He is pitching about as bad as he did for the White Sox in 2017 (135 IP: 104 K: 75 BB: 31 HR: 69 ERA+). That would support the narrative that the Giants are in a foggy, hard to figure out rebuild like the White Sox have seemingly been in over the past decade, but the comparison coupled with the data might also lead us into an answer:

He’s missing his spots.

He hasn’t been able to command his pitches — as evidenced by all the hard contact — or control them — as evidenced by the walks. How does a pitcher lose that command/control ability one year, regain it the next, then lose it the next year? Barring health problems, of which there’s no evidence, the most logical conclusion is focus. Derek Holland needs to figure out a way to repeat his delivery better or find a new way of practicing to find what he’s lost.

But rather than rag on a guy — because, again, he’s not the only Giant who is among the very worst in the entire profession at his given position — one other possibility might simply be that the sinker or 2-seam fastball is not a good pitch to throw in the year 2019.

Kenny has talked about this some, most recently in his write up on Trevor Gott:

All over the league, pitchers are dropping the sinker in favor of sliders or high-spin fastballs that they can throw above the uppercut swings of fly ball revolutionaries. Gott, though, doesn’t have a slider or even a high-spin fastball. His fastball spin ranks in the 22nd percentile, so Gott has been the perfect candidate for keeping the sinker at first glance.

Fastball spin is supposed to help a ball resist downward movement. The higher the spin, the less drop it has. Pitchers with low spin pitches tend to favor sinkers because if their pitch is going to drop, they want it to drop as much as possible.

Holland’s sinker, then, looks to be sinking right into the sweet spot of most bats and right into the wheelhouse of most hitters. It seems highly unlikely that an 11-year veteran would ditch his primary fastball to tinker with throwing a different kind of fastball after years of success with that first fastball, but since it would behoove me, a lowly baseball blogger, to put forth an idea that doesn’t cast aspersion’s on a player’s focus or even intent, it’s worth noting that at the very least he and the Giants’ coaches ought to consider tinkering with his fastball.

Just to underscore my point, here’s what happened to Derek Holland’s two-seam fastball in today’s game:

Lots of high velocity on the pitch and 11 of 17 were strikes. Three of those strikes became hard contact. Of the three hits and one run allowed by Holland, all of it came off this sinker. All three would fall into that “Hard Hit” category by Statcast, while that home run would, obviously, because of the launch angle and velocity, be a “Barreled” ball.

So, there’s the general reinforcement of the idea that maybe the sinker isn’t the best pitch for him to rely on. Here’s evidence that his command and control is just as much of an issue:

This is where Buster Posey set up when Holland faced pinch hitter Jesus Aguilar:

And here’s where the pitch that would become a monstrous home run entered the strike zone:

Holland will probably have more time to sort things out, but it’s an open question as to how he’ll fix what’s ailing him — but that’s what he’s going to need to do if he’s going to survive the season.