Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a converted minor league starter has become a breakout relief ace for the Yankees. He is capable of throwing multiple innings if necessary, has tweaked his pitch selection, and has a knack for stranding baserunners.
In 2017, that pitcher was Chad Green. This year, it’s Jonathan Holder. While Holder’s success sounds much like the 2017 Green story, just how similar are these two right-handed relievers?
The main difference is in these pitchers’ fastballs. Holder has average velocity on his heater, sitting around 92.6 mph on the pitch. For a reliever to be successful with average velocity, he needs to have excellent breaking balls and must pitch with pinpoint accuracy.
Holder’s curveball was his bread and butter in the minors. When the pitch started getting hit around the yard in the big leagues, he changed his grip and turned the curveball into more of a traditional slider. This has been Holder’s best pitch in 2018. He has also ramped up the use of his changeup, giving him a third weapon with which to attack hitters. In kind, his strikeout rate has improved this year.
Holder’s location is where he really shines though. He has the best walk rate among relievers on the Yankees, and has dramatically dropped his home run rate. These improvements can all be attributed to his pitch placement. Holder excels at limiting baserunners through expert control. Opposing batters are hitting just .155 against Holder this year, and his WHIP is a sparkling 0.68. These totals aren’t just among the Yankee leaders though, as they pace the entire MLB. He has the eighth-best batting average against and the third-best WHIP league-wide.
No matter how he does it, a reliever’s primary job is to prevent runs from scoring. Holder’s improved control has helped him with that in a big way. He has a minuscule 1.84 ERA, and he has allowed earned runs in just two games this year, both in early April. He’s gone over two months without serving up any earned runs, which is a very impressive streak.
Green had a similar stretch of dominance last year when the Yankees needed him the most. From August 10 through the end of the season, he allowed just three earned runs in 21 innings. Green, though, couldn’t have done it more differently from Holder.
While Holder’s breakout has been based around control, Green’s was all about strikeouts and heat. He averages over 96 mph on his fastball and throws it much more often than Holder. He strikes out significantly more batters as well, but opponents hit his pitches harder than Holder’s.
Green’s ERA last year, however, was almost identical to Holder’s this year at 1.83. His tendency to give up hard contact hasn’t been a problem in terms of run prevention because Green’s greatest strength is escaping jams by avoiding contact all-together. He is among the top 30 qualified relievers in terms of stranding inherited runners, while Holder has the sixth-worst strand rate. This is likely due to Green’s better strikeout ability. While Holder’s strikeout numbers have improved, they are still a bit shy of being truly elite among relievers.
Holder and Green have both come from relative obscurity to become large parts of the 2018 Yankees bullpen. His breakthrough last year had more sizzle than Holder’s does this year, but their different approaches give Aaron Boone options when he chooses who to warm up in the bullpen. Green may be the more electric choice, but Holder is safer and makes fewer mistakes.
Even going back to 2014 Dellin Betances and 2009 Phil Hughes, the Yankees have always had a flair for turning struggling starters into trusted relievers. Last year it was Green, and this year it’s been Holder. Relievers are often volatile from year to year, but the Yankees have two similar, but different, keepers on their hands in Green and Holder.