At first blush, Jonathan Holder is merely the last chain in an already large bullpen, an eight-man staff that has drawn criticism as bloated when the team could otherwise use an extra utility player for, say, extra innings, or when they were held to 24 men during Tyler Austin’s suspension.
Yet if you have a bullpen with Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green, and Dellin Betances, and you still make sure to squeeze a pitcher like Holder into the mix, there has to be a solid reason. Holder is unremarkable in performance thus far, just a 104 ERA- in 55.1 professional innings. He is a standard fastball-first, fly ball pitcher, pitching to a 4.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 38.7% ground ball percentage.
Now his pitch mix looks something like primarily fastball, followed by a so-far-more-ineffective cutter, curve, change, and a newly introduced slider. What’s also incredibly interesting is that while trying to integrate the slider, something all teams are trying to do to increase whiff rate, they are also trying to leverage effective velocity.
For those who are unaware, this is actually a rather old sabermetric principle, and it also makes intuitive sense. When objects are coming closer to your face, they tend to look like they’re heading at you at light speed, while if you were looking at a train going by at 60 mph a mile away, it would probably look like a snail’s pace. The same applies in baseball, explained by this article in FanGraphs by Scott Spratt:
“[T]he theory of Effective Velocity is that the location of the pitch influences how the batter perceives the velocity of the pitch. That is because pitches that are higher and more inside require the bat to reach in front of the plate to make solid contact while pitches that are lower and more outside allow the bat to make solid contact behind the plate.”
Now, knowing this, look at where Jonathan Holder located his fastball in 2017...
...in comparison to his location this season so far:
This makes a lot of sense when you realize where opposing hitters are making contact against him:
The only issue of course is that the fastball isn’t something wild velocity-wise; a maximum release speed of 94 mph this season isn’t anything special in this league, especially when you’re trying to make that 50% of your repertoire.
There’s definitely a nugget in here that’s interesting, though. I’ve always said that modes of analyses like this aren’t necessarily to “find” a breakout; I actually think that’s a trivial piece of baseball analysis because while being correct in future predictions is useful, what’s more useful is determining internal thought processes of the team in question. For example, I would say that learning that teams are “McCullersing” isn’t so much predicting how well Lance McCullers Jr. will do, but evident of a team-wide strategy that has wider and more sport-wide implications.
This isn’t to say Holder has sport-wide implications, but the internal thinking is present. The Yankees are holding on to Holder because they believe that he can become a solid late-inning option, or at the bare minimum, well above the usual replacement level middle innings pitcher.
The Yankees are trying to leverage Holder’s fastball and effective velocity, and the thing to watch is how much he integrates his slider to generate changes in velocity and north-south visuals. I’m not here to predict that Holder is the next guy—I already picked up on Green—but to say that he is someone whose adjustments you should watch with intent.