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Jonathan Holder has been a welcome surprise in the Yankees bullpen

The righty made a few changes to his approach and pitch mix, and it's led to success.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have enjoyed quite the bounceback from flamethrower Chad Green, who is the current team leader in FanGraphs’ version of WAR with 0.4. David Hale has pitched better than expected (3.00 ERA, 2.20 FIP in six frames) and Adam Ottavino has managed to get important outs despite struggling with walks. Zack Britton (1.35 ERA in six innings, with six saves) has filled in nicely for Aroldis Chapman as the closer. The Luises, Cessa and Avilan, have performed well in limited exposure.

Yet Jonathan Holder has been the unsung hero of the unit at the outset of the season, alongside Green of course. From an expectations standpoint, though, the Yankees have to be happy with what they have gotten from Holder to this point.

After the season he had last year, getting something out of Holder is a victory. And so far, the results are encouraging. Fresh in our memories is the way he got out of a bases loaded jam with an inning-ending double play against the Rays in the weekend. But he has been immaculate all season, although the small sample size caveat applies.

In six 2020 games Holder has seven frames with a 1.29 ERA. His 2.58 FIP is indicative that it hasn’t been all luck, and he is also rocking a very good 57.9 groundball percentage. His 2:1 K:BB ratio indicates that he hasn’t been nearly as dominant as Green, but then again, he is not expected to be.

Let’s compare those numbers with the season he had in 2019. In 34 games and 41.1 innings, he had a 10.02 K/9 and a 2.40 BB/9, but it came with a 6.31 ERA and a 4.45 FIP. He had a homer problem, mainly because batters hit the ball very hard and in the air (37.7 groundball percentage.)

Holder was in the Scranton shuttle last year and even had to go on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation in August. Let’s just say that 2019 wasn’t the best for him.

An asset for the Yankees’ relief corps

He seems to be enjoying 2020, after all. He is in the 91st percentile in expected wOBA, or xwOBA, with a .218 mark. He is also in the top 9% of the league in xERA (1.83) and in the 70th percentile in average exit velocity. Opponents just aren’t making solid contact against Holder.

Much of his success can be attributed to a change in his pitch mix and an improved changeup, which appears to have more break this season. He has upped the usage of the pitch from 16.5 percent in 2019 to 30.2 percent this year. The whiff percentage on the offering has upped from 20.6 in 2019 to 36.8 in 2020.

Holder has also been using his cutter more this year, increasing from 4.0 to 12.1 percent. So far, the pitch is returning a meager .138 xBA, a .160 xSLG and a .143 xwOBA, with an average exit velocity of 81.3 mph.

After using his slider one-quarter of the time last season, he has basically ditched it this year in favor of the changeup and the cutter (according to Baseball Savant pitch tracking) and it has been a good recipe for him.

As long as he can command his fastball, use that improved changeup and keep earning groundballs at the rate he has, he will limit the home runs and overall damage. Let’s keep in mind that Holder, heavily criticized by some, has a career 4.12 ERA. Two of his three full seasons in the majors have returned an ERA lower than 4.00, so it is looking like 2019 was the outlier and not the norm. Let’s hope he can keep retiring hitters and solidify his presence in the Yankees bullpen.