When the Yankees assembled their “super-bullpen” for 2019, Jonathan Holder provided a nice safety valve, but served as kind of an afterthought. Despite his solid 2018 season, there ranked at least five pitchers ahead of him on the totem pole, but Holder would surely be counted on for some middle relief innings.
That said, I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that Holder would have logged the most innings of any Yankees reliever so far, and accumulated the second-highest leverage index, behind only the closer, Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees are using Holder a lot, and at several key moments.
Predictably, this has backfired at times. Holder owns a 5.40 ERA, has blown a save, and sports the highest batting average against of any Yankees reliever not named Chad Green. Despite Aaron Boone’s confidence in him, Holder hasn’t done enough this year to warrant that trust.
There may not be significant reason to worry about Holder, though. A deeper dive into his advanced metrics shows the profile of a pitcher who has actually pitched better in 2019 than he did last year in some respects, and is due for a serious return to form.
Holder’s 2019 K/9 (10.13), BB/9 (2.03), groundball rate (41.5%), and fly ball numbers (31.7%) are all better than they were last year, when Holder was generally a solid arm out of the bullpen. So, what gives this year?
The right-hander doesn’t have exceptional stuff in his arsenal. His fastball averages 92.5 mph, and his slider and changeup are inconsistent. To that point, Holder got by last year on his excellent location and low walk rate.
Holder was specifically at his best last year when that control led to a ton of weak contact. His average exit velocity against registered at just 86.3 mph, a figure that has climbed to 89.1 mph this year. So, if he’s striking out more batters and getting more groundballs, why are batters squaring him up now?
The answer is Holder’s offspeed pitches are getting absolutely decked this year. Opponents have hit .357 off his slider and .333 off his changeup in 2019. That comes after they hit .139 and .212 against those same pitches last year.
His heatmaps show that the location on his slider, in particular, hasn’t been quite as sharp this year:
There’s definitely a little bit more dark red in the middle of the plate in the first picture (this year) than the second one (last year). Luckily, Holder’s slider isn’t toast. His whiff percentage and strikeout rate on his slider are still similar to last season’s numbers, so hitters still miss the pitch when it’s located in the right spot.
All things considered, I’m not be too concerned about Jonathan Holder. His peripherals, while they don’t match the eye test, are still solid. Maybe Holder shouldn’t see so many high-leverage innings, but by no means is he the biggest worry in a Yankees pitching staff that has Chad Green, Zack Britton, and J.A. Happ in need of fixing.