With a 6.31 ERA, Jonathan Holder’s 2019 was very frustrating — both for him and for the New York Yankees. He had to be sent down at one point because the numbers just weren’t there, and that forced the Bombers’ hand.
However, there is reason to believe that a lot of Holder’s performance last year can be attributed to some terrible luck, and he can go back to being a valuable bullpen piece should there be a season in 2020.
If MLB goes through with one of the plans to resurrect the season, it will likely be with expanded rosters and no minors, which would require teams to have lots and lots of arms to navigate through the tight schedule. If Jonathan Holders is in form, it would be huge news for the Yankees.
Luck just wasn’t on his side
First, back to his 2019 season. Behind that ugly 6.31 ERA was a much more decent 4.45 FIP and an even better 3.74 SIERA. In 2018, he had a 3.14 ERA, a 3.04 FIP and a 3.98 SIERA. One of those advanced stats thinks he was better last year than in 2018.
The odds that Holder has another season with a similar LOB% than the 53.6 percent he had in 2019 are very slim, at best. Usually, a pitcher’s strand rate varies between 70 or 75 percent. He was criminally unlucky in that department last year.
Holder should have a bounce-back season, according to several indicators. He actually had a better K-BB% in 2019 than in 2018. Last season, he struck out 10.02 batters per each nine frames and handed just 2.40 bases on balls. The year before he had a 8.18 K/9 and a 2.59 BB/9. His barrel percentage was 8.3 two seasons ago and 8.2 last year, and his .292 xwOBA in 2018 is virtually the same as his .294 mark in 2019.
Now, let’s analyze the differences in his profile from both seasons. Last year he had a 34.2 hard-hit rate, which wasn’t all that bad, but not quite his 2018 performance (28.6, in the 94th percentile.)
Another tangible difference is evident in the average exit velocity. He allowed contact that was almost two miles per hour harder in average last season (88.2 mph) than in 2018 (86.3 mph.) That kind of hard contact and the frequency of it can help, at least partially, explain such a big surge in HR/9: in 2018 he allowed just 0.55 HR/9, a number that went through the roof last season, with 1.74. His HR/FB also went up from 4.2% to 15.4%.
There are some concerns to be had, however. The quality of Holder’s stuff declined a bit if we judge it by velocity:
2018: 93.0 mph
2019: 92.5 mph
2018: 85.7 mph
2019: 86.4 mph
As well as pitch value:
2018: FB 6.4, SL 3.1, CH 3.9
2019: FB 1.4, SL -0.3, CH -2.3
Batters hit .313 with a .500 SLG against Holder’s change in 2019. However, his expected BA was .213, and his expected slugging .269. Perhaps the biggest influence in this regard was the decaying separation of velocity he experienced. In 2018, there was a 7.3 mph separation between his fastball and change, but that number decreased to just 6.1 mph in 2019.
Maybe pitching coach Matt Blake can help him resurrect his changeup and, with it, the rest of his repertoire. For what it’s worth, he maintained a healthy dose of swings and misses in his game, bumping his SwStrk% from 10.5 in 2018 to 11.8 last season.
I genuinely think that Jonathan Holder can be a useful bullpen arm for the Yankees going forward, and that his days of being a 6.00+ ERA hurler are well in the rear-view mirror.