Closer has been just as effective since returning from Tommy John surgery
By Matt Kelly
Indians star Francisco Lindor faced some of baseball's best pitchers during Cleveland's run to the World Series last fall, but he'd never seen a pitcher quite like the one staring back at him in the eighth inning of the 2017 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard.
The man on the mound, clad in Rockies pinstripes, had his arms raised high like he was about to throw a football. Then he lifted his leg, planted and let his back side collapse toward first base. The object in his hand shot out at Lindor, seemingly traveling in the opposite direction as the pitcher's body. Straight as an arrow, the pitch had to be a fastball at Lindor's knees -- until suddenly it wasn't. Greg Holland's patented slider took a nosedive at the last second, and Lindor was left flailing.
Two more times, Holland threw Lindor what appeared to be his mid-90s fastball, and twice more Lindor swung meekly at a slider just above the dirt. Strike three, side retired, inning over. And another zero on the board as Holland walked off the mound.
Holland has quietly racked up a ton of these while pitching in small markets, first for the Royals and now the Rockies. Whiffs, outs and saves -- lots of them. The right-hander converted an incredible 93 of his 98 save opportunities with Kansas City from 2013-14, and this season -- his first time on the mound in more than a year -- has been much of the same. In the 29 times Holland has jogged in with a save on the line this year, Colorado has lost just once.
That's quite a return on investment for the Rockies, who signed Holland this past offseason on a one-year, $6 million flier. Faced with a closer's worst nightmare -- a diminished fastball -- as he's worked his way back from Tommy John surgery, Holland is thriving nonetheless. The closer maintains he doesn't keep track of his usage rates for each pitch, but the numbers say he's flipped the script from his peak dominance in 2014. Holland has swapped his four-seamer (54.6 percent in '14, 45.5 percent in '17) for his slider (42.8 percent in '14, 48.4 percent in '17) as his primary pitch, and that slider is as good as it's ever been, thanks in part to the downtick on Holland's heater.
"He's got the mental wherewithal and the calmness, the poise and the competitiveness to pitch in the ninth inning," said Rockies manager Bud Black. "I knew what his stuff was from a distance, but the mental side of Greg is something I've come to appreciate."
It all starts with Holland's one-of-a-kind delivery, one that a coach would never teach to a young pitcher. As Holland moves his weight forward, his body tumbles off to his left, while his pitches shoot out the other way. It's something Holland has always remembered doing.
"Some people are different with their mechanics, but that's just who I am," Holland said. "I think it adds to the deception. I've been out there enough where I'm at the point where I might not be able to explain it, but I can feel it. I know when I'm releasing the ball whether my timing is weird or not."
Holland's fastball and slider both come out from almost the same release point over the top. Each of them begins on the same plane with nearly identical spin rates (2,289 rpm on the fastball and 2,166 rpm on the slider) and velocities that are often within six to eight mph of each other. Then, while Holland's fastball stays straight as a dart, his slider drops off the table -- almost in 12-to-6 fashion.
"Most sliders don't have the downward action that [Holland]'s does, and a lot of that has to do with his delivery," said Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster, who previously worked with Holland in Kansas City as the Royals' bullpen coach. "He keeps that slider on a straight line longer than most guys, and as a hitter I've got to decide, 'Is it a strike or isn't it?' in a split second."
Watch Holland pitch and you'll often see him throw his fastball and slider in identical spots. But the deception, along with the pitches' relative similarities in spin and velocity, keeps hitters from guessing on either offering. Opponents have gotten just eight hits off Holland's slider (all singles) in 63 at-bats in 2017, while whiffing on more than 50 percent of their swings. Throw in a slower mid-70s breaking ball (which resembles more of a curveball) and an occasional splitter, and Holland is going with breaking balls on more than half of his pitches.
That's a rarity for a closer, but an effective strategy for Holland to play up his fastball's velocity. In fact, opponents are missing on a higher percentage of their swings against Holland's four-seamer this season (22.1 percent) than they did in 2014 (19.7 percent).
"Greg's fastball doesn't tail or run, it stays right on a line," said Foster. "So when he pairs it with that slider, it makes it look even harder because you don't know when it's coming."
One of these Greg Holland pitches is a 95 mph fastball. The other is an 87 mph slider. At this point the hitter isn't sure which is which. pic.twitter.com/s4MBzXzKES
Confused hitters lead to bad swings, and Holland has seen plenty of those while holding opponents scoreless in 30 of his 35 appearances so far. As Colorado holds the second National League Wild Card with a 53-41 record, Holland may be the club's most important player as it tries for its first playoff berth in eight years. His 28 saves in the first half set a Rockies record and already ranked as the 10th most in franchise history over any full season. And for a team that has already played in 16 one-run games -- winning 11 of them -- a shutdown closer has been essential.
"When you're growing up dreaming of being a big league pitcher, you're not dreaming of pitching in a 10-run game -- it's a tie game in the World Series" Holland said. "That adrenaline and excitement is what makes this game great, and I think all of us want to be in those situations. Embrace the big wins and embrace the close ones, too."
Right now the Rockies are embracing their $6 million gamble -- one that could become their ace in the hole come October.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.