What’s Wrong With Jonathan Holder?

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The Yankees sent Jonathan Holder to Triple-A Scranton after a disastrous outing on Monday night against Toronto. Holder, despite being a very effective reliever in 2018, has become unusable at the big league level in 2019. To the numbers, with which you’re almost certainly familiar by now:

  • 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)
  • Season Totals: 35.2 IP, 40 H, 30 R (27 ER), 8 HR, 16.7% HR/FB ratio, 6.81 ERA (4.95 FIP)

Those are ugly, ugly numbers. He’s essentially been batting practice in human form, with opposition batters collectively hitting .270/.329/.480 (.809 OPS) off him this year. Not good. Not good at all.

Anyway, now that Holder is working on fixing himself in the minors, I wanted to take a quick look at what’s gone wrong for Holder this year to see if we can’t pinpoint an exact reason for his struggles.

Less Velocity, More Over the Plate

One thing that immediately jumps out is a noticeable decrease in velocity. Here’s a table of Holder’s velocity since he threw his first MLB pitch:

FourseamChangeSliderCurveCutter
201693.9285.510.0076.7089.32
201792.7785.870.0076.2187.53
201893.0385.8982.7976.5286.96
201992.5486.4280.9881.2185.05

Pretty much across the board we see a decrease in velocity for Holder from 2018-2019, but one thing stands out in particular: his hard stuff has all dropped in velocity while his changeup has increased. What does that mean? Well, check out the velocity differences between his FB change in 2017, 2018, and 2019:

  • 2017: 6.90 mph
  • 2018: 7.14 mph
  • 2019: 6.12 mph

That is not what you want. That’s essentially a full mph drop right there, which may not sound like a lot, but can make a huge difference. Essentially, it means that there’s much less deception in Holder’s repertoire. That matters a lot less if a guy is throwing 100 mph and can blow the ball by a batter, but when he’s reliant on a low-90s heater like Holder is, it is a real problem.

That Holder is leaving the ball over the middle of the plate more in 2019 is making this problem even worse. Check out his zone profile in 2018:

And 2019:

Pretty clear change there. Last year, he was able to avoid the middle/top of the zone and pound the ball low and in to RHB. This year, though, that has simply not been the case. He’s around the zone significantly more, leaving many more balls over the plate and in the middle third and up-and-away to righties. Not good!

This shows us two things: 1) it shows us that Holder’s velocity is down and the gap between his hard/soft stuff has closed significantly, and 2) that he’s leaving that reduced stuff over the plate. It is not exactly a mystery as to why he’s struggling.

More Ks and Grounders, But Much Harder Contact

Finally, let’s just briefly examine the ways in which this manifests itself in terms of results.

Exit VeloSoft Contact%Hard Contact%K%BB%HR/FB%
201886.3019.3%31.8%22.1%7.0%4.2%
201988.2024.1%36.1%24.8%6.8%16.7%

So, let’s start with the positives: Holder isn’t walking many batters, he’s striking out more batters, and he’s inducing more soft contact. In some ways, this is all encouraging and fits the modern approach to pitching. But there are obvious problems here that far, far outweigh this, of course.

To begin with, even though he’s inducing more soft contact as a percentage, he is getting hit harder overall. Exit velocity is a good proxy here, and we see a 2 mph difference from this year and last. As I showed with CC Sabathia a few weeks ago, a 2 mph difference may not seem like a lot but makes a whole world of a difference in terms of results.

Given that his soft contact percentage is up, this suggests that when Holder is getting hit hard, he is getting hit hard. This much is obvious from watching him over the last several weeks, but it’s especially stark when looking at his hard hit percentage (up 5 percentage points from last year to this) and his absurd HR/FB ratio. Bad, bad, bad.

I also think it’s interesting that Holder’s ground ball rate (34%) is up from last year (29%) and his fly ball rate (44%) is down from last year (50%). Those are good things! Again, this just demonstrates that he’s getting hit much, much harder. It seems as if Holder is harder to make contact against this year overall, but when batters do, they’re just crushing him and the results have been ugly.

What Does It Mean?

So, to sum up, Holder is getting hit much, much harder this year, and it seems as if a reduction in velocity could be to blame. On the other hand, his underlying peripherals (K%, BB%, GB%, FB%) all suggest that the capable pitcher we saw for 66 innings in 2018 is still there. It’s definitely not great that velocity is the likely culprit here, as it’s not like Holder will be able to just flip a switch and regain old velocity…

…but we did see Chad Green essentially do just that when he was demoted earlier this year. He went to the minor leagues, made a few mechanical adjustments, and returned with more velocity. The difference in results, as you know, have been dramatic.

Maybe Holder will be able to do the same thing. The Yankees clearly love him and believe he can right the ship or they wouldn’t keep running him out there amid his struggles this year. It’s possible, and there are signs he can turn it around. There really are.

Holder returning to form sure would be nice, because as good as the Yankees’ bullpen is, it can always use yet another effective arm as the team prepares for the dog days of summer.

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6 Comments

  1. Joe

    Even last year, Holder striked me as the guy who can go out and pitch a great inning or two against a poor to average lineup, a good guy to use when you want to save a better pitcher for another day. But the idea of him being used in high leverage situations against good teams was always a joke (granted, his numbers against Boston last year may have HEAVILY skewed that view). Holder being a complete dumpster fire this year isn’t a surprise to me. Great relievers can be volatile year to year. A below average pitcher like Holder, who even at his best couldn’t pitch well against better lineups, struggling? Not a surprise at all.

    Best case scenario, he goes back to being the guy who pitches against the Orioles in the late innings to save the top guys. Let everyone talk about how great he pitched against the Blue Jays. But keep him FARRRR away from good teams. Stop trying to make him out to be an elite arm Boone/Cash. Trying to compare him to Green, who is actually good, is unfair to Green.

  2. Brian M

    There’s not a ton of track record to rely on with Holder, but that 2/3 of a season stretch last season was the only time he has looked good. Maybe that was the anomaly and this is actually the pitcher he is.

  3. RetroRob

    The drop in his fastball velocity, and the corresponding increase in velocity in his change and curve suggest he’s altered either his delivery and/or release point. That would also explain his lousy fastball command, which he alluded to when interviewed the other day. Is it injury related, or simply mechanics? If the latter, there’s a good chance he’ll get back on track in AAThe Green scenario. If it’s the former, he may not get back on track until 2020. The Kahnle scenario and his lost 2019.

    • overseasyankeefan

      In the post-game interview right after he was demoted, Holder said he was physically healthy but didn’t know what exactly went wrong mechanically (and would need to talk to Larry to figure out). So that sounded more like Chad Green scenario than Kahnle in 2018.

  4. lightSABR

    Thanks! I haven’t been paying close enough attention and definitely hadn’t picked up on some of that. I mean, “More middle-middle pitches” is the first thing you go to when a pitcher’s getting hit hard, but it’s good to have more info.

    I wonder how his spin rates look.

    • lightSABR

      Spin rates and movement generally, I mean.

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