Is Greg Holland Really Doomed As A Closer?

I came here to defend Greg Holland. But before I do, I want to talk a little about Mark Melancon.

The year was 2015. Melancon’s velocity was down, both on his four-seamer and cutter, through the first two months, but he started to overcome a rough start to the season (.292 Avg allowed through May 15) in the latter part of May. Then his velocity rebounded closer to his 2014 levels over the season’s final four months.

Melancon made the National League All-Star team as a member of the Pirates that year, and I had the opportunity to interview him on Media Day in Cincinnati. I asked him about the success he was enjoying, even though he was still about 2 mph shy of his average velocity from a year prior. Melancon didn’t look happy to answer the question. He just deadpanned something to the effect of “there are other things that matter besides velocity.”

This exchange has come to mind now that the Diamondbacks have — in a move that has surprised most fantasy owners — named Holland as their closer to begin the 2019 season. The response from fantasy analysts and owners has been underwhelming. Even in CBS leagues, which tend to be deeper, Holland is still unowned in 65 percent of leagues. Rotowire’s Jeff Erickson ran a poll to gauge the level of trust in Holland as a closer, and approximately two of three respondents expected him to lose the job by May 15.

Holland’s detractors could easily point to his sagging velocity this spring. Data from four of Holland’s five Cactus League outings were captured by PitchFX and published on Brooks Baseball, and he averaged just 90.5 mph on the 31 fastballs he threw. Last April, shortly after Holland had signed with the Cardinals, he had averaged 93.6 mph (also per Brooks Baseball).

You likely recall that Holland struggled mightily during his time with the Cardinals, but perhaps he doesn’t get enough credit for his nearly two months with the Nationals at the end of the season. He was dominant, posting an 0.84 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 31.3 percent strikeout rate and 15.1 percent SwStr%, and he accomplished this with slightly lower average fastball velocity than he had in April (93.0 mph).

Still, losing 0.6 mph in velocity is one thing; a year-to-year decline of more than 3 mph, as Holland is experiencing now, is another. However, as Melancon said, there is more to success than velocity, so maybe we are selling the Diamondbacks’ new closer short.

There is certainly risk in trusting Holland with a roster spot, especially an active one, and we can’t know how his season will progress. Maybe his velocity will rebound. Maybe the poll respondents are right, and he won’t last two months in the role. What we can determine is if there is any sort of track record for relievers succeeding after a notable decline in velocity. Since 2015, there have been 373 relievers who pitched enough innings to be qualified in back-to-back seasons. Only 16 (or 4.3 percent) of them lost at least 2 mph in average fastball velocity between the previous March and April to the March and April of a given season. Melancon and Fernando Salas were the only ones to lose 3 mph or more.

As I mentioned above, Melancon had an All-Star season in the year he endured an enormous April-to-April velocity drop. Salas increased his strikeout rate and SwStr% despite the early lost velocity. However, a 64.8 percent strand rate contributed to a 4.24 ERA, so those whiffs were little solace.

The table below includes all 16 relievers who lost at least 2 mph in average fastball velocity from one April to the next, and in terms of the year-to-year change in their full-season SwStr%, the results are very mixed. Just last season, Craig Kimbrel and Raisel Iglesias experienced early-season velocity drops, but both relievers rebounded in May.

Year-to-Year Change in Mar/Apr Velocity and SwStr%
Pitcher Season 1 Avg. FB Velocity (mph) Season SwStr% Season 2 Avg. FB Velocity (mph) Season SwStr% Velo Difference (mph) SwStr% Difference
Mark Melancon 2014 92.2 13.9 2015 88.0 11.8 -4.2 -2.1
Fernando Salas 2014 92.4 12.5 2015 89.1 12.9 -3.3 0.4
Jim Johnson 2015 94.5 8.0 2016 91.6 7.7 -2.9 -0.3
Bryan Morris 2015 95.4 11.7 2016 92.7 8.9 -2.7 -2.8
Ernesto Frieri 2014 93.9 10.0 2015 91.4 9.0 -2.5 -1.0
Jason Grilli 2015 94.1 14.6 2016 91.6 13.4 -2.5 -1.2
Jordan Walden 2014 96.7 14.4 2015 94.2 20.5 -2.5 6.1
Justin Wilson 2017 96.5 12.1 2018 94.3 11.5 -2.2 -0.6
Neal Cotts 2014 91.4 10.3 2015 89.2 9.8 -2.2 -0.5
Juan Nicasio 2017 95.1 10.7 2018 92.9 11.1 -2.2 0.4
Anthony Bass 2014 93.7 6.7 2015 91.6 8.5 -2.1 1.8
Raisel Iglesias 2017 95.9 13.9 2018 93.8 15.3 -2.1 1.4
Craig Kimbrel 2017 98.0 19.8 2018 96.0 17.2 -2.0 -2.6
Jake McGee 2017 94.5 9.2 2018 92.5 10.3 -2.0 1.1
Kyle Barraclough 2017 95.2 11.9 2018 93.2 10.8 -2.0 -1.1
Luis Avilan 2017 93.2 14.0 2018 91.2 10.4 -2.0 -3.6

The problem in anticipating a velocity rebound for Holland is that, even if he is throwing 92 mph in May, he is still not throwing as hard as Kimbrel and Iglesias were last April, much less later in the season. Melancon provides a more fitting comparison. Both he and Holland have a history of avoiding hard contact, so even if the latter strikes out fewer batters, he might be good enough to have success as a closer. We don’t necessarily have to assume Holland will cease to be a strikeout pitcher. Salas and Jason Grilli both compiled a SwStr% above 12.0 percent and a strikeout rate above 27.0 percent despite averaging less than 92 mph through the end of April. Salas’ average fastball velocity did rise close to 2 mph over the course of the season, while Grilli’s rose less than 1 mph.

Just because Melancon, Salas and Grilli weathered early-season drops in velocity doesn’t mean that Holland will. However, in leagues where saves are scarce, it would be a mistake to not try to add Holland. Stash him for a week or two — or maybe even a little over a month — and see if his velocity rebounds. There is even a chance that you will wind up with a version of Holland that resembles the shut-down reliever we saw late last season.





Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.

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jarjets89
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jarjets89

Loving the irreverence here. The average swinging strike change for your sample is approximately -.3% — not too major (if my quick calcs are correct). Also, a few days before deciding on Holland, the d-backs spoke of “wanting to get a better look at a few of the closer candidates’ stuff,” or something similar, so it’s possible they’ve already seen Holland’s velo rebound a bit (and the info just hasn’t become public)