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The unfortunate timing of Jonathan Holder’s injury

It looked like Holder had turned a corner before landing on the injured list

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Holder is off to the 10-day IL with shoulder inflammation, which is a frustrating development given his recent results on the mound since coming back from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barres. The Yankees made the announcement just over two weeks since they brought the right-hander back from the minors. Given Holder’s recent production in relief, this injury feels like a disappointing loss.

Prior to Holder’s return to the major leagues, past performances had given Yankees fans little reason for excitement when he was promoted from Triple-A last month. After a strong 2018 campaign that saw him post a 3.14 FIP over 66 innings, Holder flopped to begin 2019, culminating in a demotion to Scranton after allowing five earned runs against the Blue Jays on June 24 without recording an out, inflating his season ERA to 6.81.

Holder appeared in nine games for the RailRiders after hitting rock-bottom with the Yanks, and while he still allowed 13 hits over 12.1 innings, he did strike out 15 batters compared to just two walks. The Yankees brought him back, and in a small sample size of 5.2 innings since rejoining the team, Holder allowed two earned runs, struck out six and didn’t walked a batter.

Those are much more encouraging numbers compared to how he looked in his three months of the season. That positive progression has now hit a wall amid his recent injury news, which felt avoidable had he not been stretched for 2.2 innings in Baltimore on Wednesday night.

Back when Chad Green couldn’t get an out at the major league level, he was sent to Triple-A, made a brief adjustment to his mechanics, and returned with added velocity on his fastball. That tinkering brought him back success and helped him become the team’s regular opener on bullpen days.

Holder took on that role on Tuesday night against the Orioles in a Yankees victory. His contribution, however, may have come at a cost. Holder, who hadn’t thrown more than two innings all season up until Wednesday night, was only five innings removed from his minor-league stint. Exhausting him for 2.2 innings so quickly upon his return may not have been prudent.

Given how much the Yankees’ key bullpen pieces have been used this season, options like Holder have been called upon for more work, and that necessity, while easily avoidable, likely resulted in Holder’s injured shoulder. That is a shame for the Yankees given the recent changes he had made to improve his game.

The first change Holder had made before hitting the IL was his fastball usage. Again, it’s not the biggest sample size, but since returning from the minors, Holder threw his fastball at a rate of 66.7 percent, compared to 53 percent prior to his demotion. Unlike Green, his velocity on the fastball had been almost exactly the same—92.2 mph before demotion, 92.3 mph since. His xSLG percentage on fastballs, however, dropped from .656 in June to .426 in his last two outings, much closer to his April mark, before things came unraveled.

While his fastball usage changed, Holder remained about the same with his slider, though that pitch had undergone some changes of its own. Not only had Holder been throwing it harder, averaging 82.3 mph after throwing it at an average of 80.5 mph before being sent down, it also had more break. Take a look at the trajectory of his horizontal break on the slider since returning in July:

Courtesy of Statcast

It’s no surprise that June was by far Holder’s worst month of the season, given how his slider barely moved. Perhaps with Holder throwing his heater more, hitters are off balance when he goes to the slider, which was bending much more than it was when he was struggling. As a result, Holder’s slider nearly tripled in pitch value according to FanGraphs, and his pitch value on his fastball increased as well. Both pitches saw at least a 10 percent drop in hard-hit percentage, which was a huge problem for Holder back in June.

Holder labored at the end of his last outing against the Orioles, but both runs he surrendered were in the third inning, when he was likely stretched out too far after two full innings of work. Aside from that inning, he’d tossed five shutout frames since coming back, with three of them coming against formidable lineups in the Red Sox and Twins.

Had another arm been called upon to start that third inning in Camden Yards, Holder would have still had a scoreless stat sheet since coming back from the minors, and possibly would have been able to avoid the IL. Given how Holder looked before being diagnosed with shoulder inflammation, this is a frustrating time to lose him, and the Yanks can only hope he maintains his recent changes when he returns to full health.