According to The Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton via Twitter late last night, the Blue Jays aren’t interested in Royals closer Joakim Soria but rather their setup man, hard-throwing righty Greg Holland. Dutton adds, with good reason, that the Royals aren’t inclined to deal him unless they’re overwhelmed in a trade.
While the standard “Blue Jays interested in reliever X” phrase has become tiresome this offseason, Holland’s name is both intriguing and unexpected. It’s hard to imagine Alex Anthopoulos ever overpaying in a trade to “overwhelm” the other team, but there’s a lot to like about the young, controllable Holland.
A 10th-round pick by the Royals in 2007, Holland was practically unknown to the majority of non-Royals fans up until this season, when he really broke out as a key cog in Kansas City’s bullpen.
After leaping to Hi-A as a 22-year-old in 2008 after a stint in rookie ball during his draft year, Holland made it up to Triple-A in just his second full season in 2009. After an extended look with Triple-A Omaha last year, he was called up to the Royals and made his Major League debut on August 2. Though he struck out 23 hitters in 18.2 innings during his first big league stint (11.1 K/9), he also surrendered 23 hits and 14 earned runs over that span, so he was optioned back to Omaha after spring training to open the 2011 season at Triple-A. It took Holland less than two months to get back up to the big leagues, though, as he was called up in May and stuck with the team for the remainder of the season.
Any way you look at them, Holland’s numbers this season with Kansas City were impressive, and it’s obvious as to why the Royals would be reluctant to trade him. In addition to recording an identical 11.1 K/9 to last year (thanks to 74 strikeouts in 60 innings), Holland allowed just 12 earned runs on 37 hits as well, good for a 1.80 ERA and an average of 5.6 hits per nine frames. He also improved his walk rate, walking 19 in 60 big league frames (2.9 BB/9) compared to 46 walks in 87 Triple-A innings (4.7 BB/9).
There were, however, two stats from Holland’s 2011 that really stood out to me above all others, and the first being his 24:1 shutdown-to-meltdown ratio.
Shutdowns and meltdowns, some of the newest sabermetric statistics, were created for relief pitchers as an alternative to the useless and, at times, confusing save statistic. Shutdowns are really quite simple: did a relief pitcher aid or impede his team’s chances of winning the game during his outing? If he helped his team’s chances, he’s given a shutdown. If he put his team in a likelier position to lose, though, then he gets a meltdown. Easy, right? To put into perspective how crazy Holland’s 24:1 mark was, the league average this season was right around 1.73:1, and anything around 1:1 is considered replacement level.
The second impressive stat was Holland’s 16.6 swinging strike percentage. A great indicator of a pitcher’s ability to strike out a batter, Holland’s mark was not only one of the highest among all pitchers, but actually third-highest in baseball behind only Sergio Romo of the Giants and the newest member of the Phillies, Jonathan Papelbon.
Holland is aggressive on the mound and gets ahead in counts, throwing first-pitch strikes 60 percent of the time. That, along with his 44.9% ground ball rate were other reasons for his success this season and contributed to his nearly identical numbers against both left and right-handed hitters.
Holland used his plus slider almost exclusively against right-handers, holding them to just a .171 average, .519 OPS, and 2.05 ERA in 127 plate appearances. According to FanGraph’s PitchFX data, he threw his slider 43.7 percent of time — almost as often as his fastball and nearly twice as much as he did during his first stint with the Royals in 2010. Holland has, however, apparently started using a splitter as well, so the PitchFX data for his slider likely includes some splitters as well. As shown FanGraphs heat map below, you can see how Holland kept the pitch(es) low and its increased use in 2011 (left) over 2010 (right). His extra at-bats versus right-handers over 2010 affects the heat map as well.
Against lefties, Holland was even better, limiting them to a .181 average, .522 OPS, and 1.44 ERA in 106 plate appearances — almost identical to his numbers against righties. He did not allow a home run against left-handers, one reason for the lower ERA. Another reason for his success against lefties was because of the modified use of his mid-90s fastball where, as shown by the heat map below, he stuck primarily to the outer half of the plate when using it.
All in all, Holland would certainly be a welcome addition to the Jays’ bullpen, especially over someone like Chad Beck or Danny Farquhar. Holland could also serve as an alternative to Jesse Litsch or Joel Carreno in case either returns to being a starter, though unlikely given their successful samples in the bullpen in 2011.
There is, however, also the notion that Anthopoulos could eye Holland with the intention of working him into the starting rotation, much like he did with Brandon Morrow and how he has mentioned the Rangers doing so in the past. The Royals’ recent signing of Jonathan Broxton to be Soria’s setup man next season could factor in from a relief standpoint but, despite the club’s apparent intention to build an elite bullpen, it’s been reported that there have already been internal discussions about stretching Holland out in the spring and moving him to the starting rotation, where the team has a glaring need.
Not all relievers can simply transition into being effective starters, but it seems like Holland certainly could. Even though he has just seven minor league starts to his name, Holland does have three seasons of at least 84 innings under his belt, including 87.2 combined innings last season between Triple-A and the Majors. Assuming he followed the model of a 20 percent innings increase, that would put him at roughly 106 innings and anywhere from 15-21 starts next season.
Questions have surfaced about moving Holland to the rotation, though, specifically whether or not his existing repertoire would be as effective against a lineup multiple times a game and whether or not his results would change if he wasn’t throwing at maximum effort like he was in a relief outing. But, if Holland used his splitter more often and worked on his high-70s curveball, he would have three to four weapons to use and make it hard not to try him as a starter.
As Anthopoulos would say, it all comes down value and price. Holland’s under club control until 2016 and there’s no urgency on Kansas City’s end to trade him, especially if they’re considering moving him to the rotation next year. He’d be a nice piece to have but only if the price is right, and by the sounds of things, it would be quite high.
As with any trade, though, if it makes sense to Anthopoulos, he’ll get it done, and before anyone hears about it.