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Jonathan Holder shows why betting on relief pitching is silly

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The right-hander was a star for most of the season, but over the last couple of weeks, the shine has worn off. Why?

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Jonathan Holder ascension from an extra arm at the end of the bullpen to one of Aaron Boone’s favorite weapons stands out as one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 season. Sporting a first half ERA of 1.85 and FIP of 2.30, Holder had many a Yankees fan thinking the team had discovered yet another relief ace to add to a deep, deep bullpen.

Since then, Holder’s been kicked in the teeth, and seems to have fallen into the team-wide pitching malaise. It’s worth dipping into the numbers to see if there’s actually something wrong with Holder’s process.

The last four appearances have been the ones really giving pause to Holder’s assumed status as a high-leverage pitcher. In that time he’s faced 21 batters, giving up ten hits and nine runs. All of this is skewed by his historically awful appearance against the Red Sox on Friday night, but even the three before that, against the Orioles, Royals and Rays, were well below the standard Holder had set for himself this season.

So what gives? Holder’s never been a guy who records high strikeout numbers. His 8.04 K/9 this season ranks him ahead of only Zach Britton in the “regular” group of the Yankees’ bullpen. And that’s down from last year’s 9.15, which isn’t anything to write home about for a reliever anymore. So it stands to reason that if Holder’s struggling, it’s going to be because of the contact he gives up, right?

Courtesy of Fangraphs

I present you a 15 game rolling average of Holder’s contact against rate. His last few appearances have shown no real increase in fly ball numbers, and a marginal inverted relationship between his groundballs and line drives. In short, he’s getting hurt but not because of a hard spike in the bad kind of contact.

What about contact quality, though? If players are continually squaring up pitches, eventually they’ll land for hits and you’re in trouble. Consider the same 15 game rolling average:

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Again, there’s no connection. Holder’s been bad, but he hasn’t been bad for any of the reasons one would expect from a player of his profile. You’d expect to see a jump in hard contact, line drives, fly balls, the kind of contact that really harms pitchers. Instead, his last few outings have been the pitching equivalent of the shrugging emoji. The only thing that’s shown a marketable increase at all is overall contact rate:

Courtesy of Fangraphs

And maybe that’s enough for this regression we’re seeing. To use a simple example, if a player gives up a home run every fourth hit, and gives up 12 hits over a stretch instead of just eight, you’ll see another home run surrendered. Holder’s contact against hasn’t changed, but the total amount of contact has.

In the end, this may be a passing problem for Holder. Relievers are the most volatile group of players in pretty much any sport, and regularly go through patches of dominance and ineffectiveness. In the middle of a series against the Red Sox where almost everything has gone wrong, though, Aaron Boone may not have time to wait for Holder to straighten out.