It’s certainly no secret Jonathan Holder isn’t having the same amount of success as he did in 2018, but he’s not altogether a different pitcher. There are some differences in his stuff, but there were warning signs his 2018 performance wasn’t sustainable long before the 2019 season started. Holder’s season to this point might not be a perfect reflection of his true talent level, but his 2018 season wasn’t either.
Plenty of statistics show Jonathan Holder was a pretty solid bullpen option last year. His 8.18 K/9 rate was a bit lower than average compared to the other Yankee relievers, but still, he sported a 3.14 ERA in 66 innings of work, which was the fourth-most out of the pen. Only Chad Green issued fewer walks and only Aroldis Chapman allowed fewer homers on a per 9 innings basis. Overall, it would be difficult to ask for much more out of the sixth- or seventh-best pitcher out of the bullpen.
For all the success Holder had last season, it came with plenty of warning signs for regression.
Two red flags were his fantastic HR/FB rate and BABIP. Holder’s 4.3% HR/FB rate was well below the 12.7% league average rate, meaning when hitters put the ball in the air, it hardly made it to the outfield seats. Moreover, when hitters put the ball in play, it hardly fell for a hit. Holder had just a .260 BABIP, which was more than 30 points lower than league average. That figure alone could indicate hitters ran into some bad luck, but to his credit, Holder was in the top 6% of the league at limiting hard contact.
Given this propensity for limiting hard contact, a low BABIP and HR/FB rate could be expected, but few pitchers can sustain numbers that low, especially given just how often hitters put the ball in the air. Holder had the lowest ground ball rate (29.3%) and highest flyball rate (50.5%) of any pitcher on the Yankees last season. League-wide data indicates those rates don’t often work well together.
Since 2016, only four pitchers in the league have had equal or worse GB/FB ratios and an equal or better BABIP and none of them called Yankee Stadium home. Considering how often baseballs fly out of the stadium, a bit of regression towards league average should not have been a surprise at all.
This prediction for future regression was very explicitly spelled out in Holder’s xFIP. FanGraphs has an excellent write-up on the usefulness of xFIP if you’re unfamiliar. Essentially xFIP is calculated the same way as FIP but works under the assumption that a pitcher has a league average HR/FB rate. It generally regarded as one of the best predictors for future ERA performance because HR/FB rates can come with a lot of noise and fluctuate a lot from season-to-season. Last season, Holder had a 3.14 ERA with a 3.10 FIP, but his xFIP was 4.63, meaning he was bound to regress unless he maintained his incredibly low 4.3% HR/FB rate.
Holder was bound to regress a bit statistically, and he has. Without taking his last two disastrous outings into account, Holder had essentially league average batted ball numbers -- a .293 BABIP and an 11.9% FB/HR rate, and unsurprisingly, his ERA and FIP rose accordingly to 4.93 and 3.88, respectively.
Last season, Holder put up some numbers that were likely unsustainable and so far in 2019, that looks to be true. To make matters worse, Holder’s fastball velocity has fallen about half a mile per hour, and he seems to be leaving the pitch up in the zone a bit more than in previous seasons. Plus, during the month of June he either lost his slider completely or the pitch has lost so much movement it’s nearly indistinguishable from his cutter. Those things have certainly compounded the problem, necessitating a minor league demotion. However, the real problem with Holder came before Opening Day 2019.
Things have gotten really bad for the right-hander. Predictive statistics said he was likely to regress, and the drop in his stuff has only made matters worse. The Yankees have had some success with salvaging seemingly broken relievers. Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green are a testament to that fact. The Yankees will just have to hope they can do it one more time with Jonathan Holder.