Coming into the 2018 season, I was pretty high on Jonathan Holder. For the most part, Holder rewarded me for my confidence in him, recording a 3.14 ERA (3.04 FIP) over 66.0 frames last year. However, a closer look at his 2018 reveals some worrying trends and details in his profile. Sorry to be such a downer for my first post of 2019, but if Holder wants to continue his success, there’s a few wrinkles in his game that he should address.
Underneath the hood, Holder’s peripheral stats from 2018 read like a pitcher in decline. The three main domains of run prevention are getting strikeouts, limiting walks, and prohibiting dangerous contact, and Holder has slipped in all of them.
Let’s begin by looking at Holder’s strikeout and walk numbers. While Holder struck out 23.4% of the batters he faced in 2017, in 2018 that number dropped to 22.1%. No, that isn’t a precipitous fall by any means, but it’s troubling when coupled with the rise in his walk rate from 4.7% to 7.0%. A 15.1% K-BB rate is far from terrible, but it’s pretty pedestrian (league average was 14.0%).
Even more concerning is the fact that opposing hitters exhibited better plate discipline against Holder last year. He generated an O-Swing% of 30.9, exactly the same as the league average mark. That figure was also a whopping 8.2 percentage points lower than his 2017 mark. Meanwhile, Holder’s swinging strike rate (10.6%) saw a 2.3 point decline from the year before and was a hair lower than league average (11.5%). He had a harder time fooling batters than ever before in 2018, and it shows in his peripherals.
Of course, Holder can still succeed with declining strikeout and walk numbers if he can limit hard contact. That is what he appeared to do in 2018, as he cut his HR/9 in half (0.55 last year, 1.14 in 2017). However, even here Holder’s peripherals tell a different story.
Strangely, even as Holder’s HR/9 decreased, his fly ball rate actually shot up from 39.5% in 2017 to 50.5% in 2018. Holder’s hard-hit rate increased slightly, too, from 30.8% to 31.8%, so it’s not like he figured out how to limit hard contact all of a sudden. If it were not for an inexplicable downturn in Holder’s HR/FB, his ERA might have resembled his xFIP (4.63) rather than his FIP. And if Holder can’t suppress his fly ball rate in 2019, it’s going to be hard for him to continue his success.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause for Holder’s problematic peripherals, but a likely culprit is his changed pitch mix. In 2017, Holder’s arsenal consisted of a four-seam fastball, a cutter, and a curveball. In 2018, he basically ditched both of his secondaries, throwing his fastball way more often (55.3% last year, 37.6% in 2017) and supplementing it with a slider and changeup.
The addition of a slider and changeup to Holder’s arsenal may explain his troubling peripherals. Perhaps Holder was struggling to locate on the edges of the zone with his new secondaries, which led to more walks, less swings outside of the strike zone, and more pitches susceptible to being driven to the outfield. Holder’s player page in BrooksBaseball.com gives weight to the latter part of this theory, describing both his slider and changeups as “extreme” fly ball pitches.
If my theory is correct, then Holder should be able to find success in 2019 by getting an improved feel for his new offerings. If he isn’t able to do that, maybe he could benefit from relying more on his old secondaries, which served him well in 2017. At any rate, what Holder and the Yankees should not do is look at his 2018 ERA and peg him for another solid year in 2019. Holder can still be good, but there are a few things he needs to tend to first before he can fully enter the circle of trust.