Jonathan Holder became a valuable member of the Yankees’ bullpen in 2018 after two years spent shuttling up and down from the minor leagues. He threw 66 innings that year and became a trusted middle relief option. However, Holder lost all that in 2019.
Holder endured a disastrous month of June where he accumulated an ERA over 14.00 and was demoted to Triple-A. Although he regained his confidence, he only pitched 5.2 Major League innings over the rest of the season after suffering shoulder inflammation that ended his season in August.
This year, expectations for Holder are relatively low, but there is a chance for him to steal a spot in the Yankees’ bullpen, and possibly reestablish himself as one of the team’s premier middle-innings options, like he was just two seasons ago.
2019 Statistics: 41.1 IP, 6.31 ERA, 4.45 FIP, 10.0 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.74 HR/9, 1.31 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR
2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 30.0 IP, 4.55 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 9.30 K/9, 1.31 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR
Holder has always been a strange pitcher to figure out. In his best season, 2018, he struck out batters at a lesser rate than in 2017 and 2019 and had an astronomical fly-ball rate. However, he was able to avoid the high home run rate that plagued him both of those years. In other words, Holder is a pitcher who likes to live dangerously, and he might have just gotten lucky in 2018.
However, there are glimpses that Holder can be more. His raw swing-and-miss numbers are decent, and if he could turn some of those dingers into fly outs or groundballs, he can be a useful pitcher. To be honest though, Holder’s unremarkable stuff makes that complicated. Nothing really stands out: his fastball is average, his slider is good but not great, and neither his changeup nor cutter have become a dependable third offering.
Holder’s most interesting pitch is his slider. When he broke into the bigs, he was known for throwing a curveball with an incredibly high spin rate, but he scrapped the pitch after control problems. He’s focused on his slider the last two years as his primary breaking ball, and it still has that high spin rate that attracted the Yankees to him all those years ago. However, he was sloppy with the pitch in 2019 when compared to his success in 2018. Check out the heat maps (2018 first, 2019 second):
In the first one, Holder is locating his slider down and out of the strike zone, but not too far out not to get swings and misses. It’s classic slider placement. In the second map, his slider is getting way too much of the plate and is hittable. For Holder to achieve success in 2020, he’ll have to get that pitch right.
There is definitely an opportunity for Holder to contribute this year. The bullpen is fairly open after the clear top five pitchers (Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green). Someone has to replace Dellin Betances, and with injuries in the starting rotation possibly moving Jonathan Loaisiga from the ‘pen to a starting role, there are innings to be had in the back end of the bullpen. Holder has one minor league option left, but entering his age-27 season, the Yankees would probably rather not use it.
The 2020 season will be a make-or-break year for Holder, who could either become a trusted member of the bullpen again or end up DFA’d before May. Your guess is as good as mine, but the Yankees have every right to try and figure him out one last time.