Jonathan Holder was a very effective reliever for the Yankees in both 2017 and 2018. He pitched to a 3.42 ERA (3.25 FIP) in 105.1 IP for the Yanks in those two seasons, with a 22.6% K rate against a 6.1% walk rate. Holder was especially good in 2018. All told, this is the line of a dependable, useful bullpen piece; that the average Leverage Index of his appearances was just 0.92 is a testament to the Yanks’ bullpen depth over those years.

That all came crashing down last year, though. The Yankees demoted him to Triple-A Scranton last June after a rough start to the season. Here is his season line at that time and the last 7 appearances before said demotion:

  • Season Totals (through 6/24): 35.2 IP, 40 H, 30 R (27 ER), 8 HR, 16.7% HR/FB ratio, 6.81 ERA (4.95 FIP)
  • Last 7 Appearances (6/5-6/24): 6 IP, 14 H, 14 R (13 ER), 6 HR, 46.2% HR/FB ratio, 19.50 ERA (15.02 FIP)

He was unusable at the MLB-level, but was much better in Scranton. Holder returned to the Yankees in July, throwing 5.2 innings, but suffered a season-ending injury in August. He didn’t pitch again in 2019 after he was put on the 60-Day IL in September. It was a lost year for the now 27-year-old reliever.

He’s back in 2020, though, and he’s looking more like the good reliever we saw a few years ago. Per Statcast, he’s in the 70th percentile of exit velocity, and his expected stats are even better. Now, it’s been just 6.2 innings pitched. Drawing conclusions from that is irresponsible. On the other hand, that total ranks 3rd in innings pitched on the Yankees among pitchers who haven’t started a game. The Yankees are using him. It’s worth looking at him in some detail.

I was curious if there were any reasons why Holder might be regaining that old success. One potential reason might be an increased reliance on his changeup so far. To wit:

Interesting, right? At 30%, Holder is throwing more changeups than he ever has before. The pitch got pounded last year (.349 wOBA against) but was quite good in 2018 (.212 wOBA against). So far, he’s featured it more and it’s been successful – 43% of swings against the offering thus far have come up empty. Batters are hitting just .222 against it. Statcast also shows low exit velocity and expected stats.

One big reason why appears to be obvious: location. Look at this:

Very few changeups – I count just 2 – are located up and over the heart of the plate. Crucially, it’s also playing off his fastball. The locations overlap pretty nearly, in fact. He’s been able to throw his changeup and fastball to the same location. Given that 80% of his pitches have been either a four-seamer or change, this is an ideal set-up.

Another could be a reduced spin rate, which is good for a changeup – it tends to create more movement. Holder’s change has less spin (1760 RPM) than it has in either 2019 (1848) or 2018 (1845). For what it’s worth, the pitch has 11% more horizontal break than the average change this year. That’s closer to 2018 (10%) than 2019 (5%). The average horizontal break itself hasn’t changed much, but who knows. It’s interesting in any case.

I suspect the better change is also helping his fastball. Batters also hammered that pitch in 2019 (.320 wOBA) but are much less successful against it in 2020 (.174 wOBA). Better location is surely helping here, as is the more effective change. (Or, perhaps, the better fastball is making the changeup better. That’s also possible.)

Last year, Holder said he focused on “repeating his delivery” during his pitstop in Scranton. Though he said it wasn’t mechanical, it also “wasn’t a quick fix.” Anyway, Holder felt better after making some tweaks and saw better command and results. We are seeing that so far in 2020, at least.

We’ll have to see if the increased reliance on his fastball/changeup combo is just small sample noise or a legitimate new approach. It’s really too early to tell. For now, the very early returns indicate that Holder can be an effective reliever again. That would be a welcome outcome.