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Yankees reliever Jonathan Holder is an improved pitcher this season

Holder has been a better pitcher than he was last season, even if some of the results aren’t there just yet.

MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

During the week of the MLB Draft, I decided to take a look at one of the Yankees’ more successful draft picks in the past five years, Jonathan Holder. The right-handed reliever was a sixth-round pick in 2014 and became a reliable option out of the bullpen last season across 66 innings. Holder hasn’t been lights out this season, but he’s made some improvements that might be belied by a few bad outings and an ERA that doesn’t properly reflect his overall performance. Holder is an improved pitcher in his third full big league season, even if it might not be so evident through two months.

Here in early June, Holder owns a 4-2 record with a 4.40 ERA. However, Holder’s FIP of 2.93 and xFIP of 4.23 are both improvements over last season, a season in which he posted a 3.14 ERA. Holder’s also raised his strikeout rate significantly from 8.18 K/9 in 2018 to 9.73 K/9 so far this season.

He’s doing it with some adjustments to his pitch mix, namely, a huge increase in slider usage. Holder threw his slider 14% of the time last season, and actually relied even more on his changeup (16.6%) to keep hitters off-balance. This season he’s going to his slider on 27.8% of pitches, but that doesn’t mean he gave up on the changeup that served him so well last season against lefties. He’s also increased his changeup usage to 17.7% and has become more willing to use the pitch against right-handers. Last season Holder threw only one of his 171 changeups to righties, and he’s already thrown 15 to righties in 2019. So far the signs are positive, as opponents’ expected batting average against his changeup is only .210 through 28.2 innings this year according to Statcast.

With his slider and changeup usage up, Holder has seen a 4.8% decrease in the use of his fastball and is only throwing his cutter on 3.9% of pitches, a significant reduction from 12.2% last season. Opponents slugged .600 off Holder’s cutter last season, so it’s not surprising to see him make a change in that respect. Holder’s walk rate is up this season from 2.59 BB/9 in 2018 to 2.83 BB/9 this season, likely the result of his attempts to get more batters chasing his slider. That’s a small increase and a small price to pay for a pitcher who’s increased his strikeout rate by four points and ranks in the 94th percentile in terms of hard contact rate.

Holder’s expected batting average, slugging, and wOBA are all career bests, so it’s evident that he’s pitched into a little bit of bad luck at times. Regardless of how much stock you put in the advanced metrics, Holder clearly has room to grow as the season progresses and he gets more confident in his altered pitch mix. Last season, Holder gave up only five hits against his slider. He’s already surrendered seven hits against his slider this season, and currently owns a .280 opponent average against the pitch, compared to .139 last season. It’s worth noting that Holder is getting a bit more sweeping action on his slider this season, with slightly increased vertical break and a significant 1.7 inches of extra horizontal break on average compared to last season. It’s entirely possible that Holder’s a better pitcher with a tighter, more controlled breaking ball.

Strangely enough, the 25-year-old righty’s struggles have mostly come against the Orioles this season, so throw out the argument that he just dominates bad teams out the window. The O’s have tagged Holder for six runs in only 5.2 innings of work over four games. Last season Holder pitched to a 1.69 ERA against sub-.500 teams and a 5.02 ERA against winning teams, but he’s actually had much more success against good teams in 2019.

Holder might not be every Yankee fan’s favorite reliever so far this season, but all signs point to another valuable campaign similar to, or better than, the one he posted last season. Much of that success will undoubtedly hinge on his ability to fine tune the slider that stifled opponents throughout much of the 2018 season.