The Rockies need a closer and have money to spend. Greg Holland, the Rockies’ 2017 closer, is available. Not only that, but Jeff Bridich has already indicated a willingness to bring him back, and Holland has expressed his fondness for Colorado. Estimates suggest that Holland will seek a long-term deal worth roughly $50 million. This sounds like an easy path forward. So, should the Rockies bring Holland back?
In a (very short) word, no.
Before getting to why, let’s get two things out of the way:
First, Holland had a great year. If you care about traditional statistics, he saved 41 games—tying the Rockies record—and had an ERA of 3.61, a minor miracle for any pitcher who calls Coors Field home. If you’re sabermetrically inclined, Holland had a 139 ERA+, a WPA (Win Probability Added) of 1.54, and struck out 10.99 batters per nine innings. And if you watched the Rockies this year, you know that Holland’s dominant first half played a significant role in the Rockies’ 47-26 start to the season.
And second, Holland is (arguably) Jeff Bridich’s best free agent signing as a GM. A healthy amount of skepticism accompanied Holland last winter. Holland was coming off Tommy John surgery, his winter showcase was considered underwhelming by many scouts, and the Holland signing received mixed reviews at the time. The Rockies took a gamble, and the Rockies won.
The Rockies also gambled in a smart way: they signed Holland to an incentive-laden contract that guaranteed $7 million, offered an additional $7 million in closing incentives, and gave both the Rockies and Holland an opt-out clause for the second year. In other words, the Rockies identified Holland’s risk and baked it into the contract. If Holland flopped, the Rockies lost comparatively little. If Holland pitched decently, they bought themselves an opportunity to add another year. And if Holland pitched very well—as, luckily, he did—he made some more money and bought himself the opportunity to hit the market again. That’s how we got to where we are today.
Now that we have those necessities out of the way, let’s look at the three major reasons why the Rockies shouldn’t bring Holland back.
1. Holland wasn’t as good as you thought he was in 2017
Holland’s superb numbers were significantly aided by a very low BABIP of .252. By contrast, Holland’s BABIP from 2012 to 2015 was never lower than .268, and the league average hovers around .300. His walk rate (4.08 BB/9) also rose from his peak years in Kansas City. The result was that many of Holland’s saves were a high-wire act of baserunners and hard contact that avoided catastrophe largely due to luck. There is little reason to expect that to continue next year.
2. Holland’s declining fastball velocity is turning him into a different pitcher
Take a look at this graph, which charts Holland’s fastball velocity and pitch selection:
During his peak in Kansas City, Holland’s fastball averaged between 95.7 and 96.1 mph. This year, his fastball velocity dipped to an average of 93.4. To compensate, Holland threw sliders over half the time—more than ever before. Holland’s dominance in Kansas City was a product of his ability to fool hitters with the combination of devastating slider and a great fastball. This year, Holland found success by fooling hitters with only the slider.
That difference is profound. Holland’s slider velocity hasn’t changed (around 85 mph), so as his fastball velocity declines, the difference between the two pitches decreases and he becomes less effective. His reliance on the slider alone also makes him an inherently riskier pitcher. Holland struggled this year when hitters stopped chasing the slider; without a good fastball, Holland lacked a second plus pitch to rely on when his out pitch failed him.
There are two schools of thought as to what will happen to Holland’s fastball velocity next year. One is that we should expect Holland’s velocity to decline. Holland is 32 and his fastball velocity has been falling each year since 2011. Sliders, moreover, are notoriously hard on pitching arms, and Holland has hardly been injury-free. But the other school of thought it is that Holland’s velocity will rise as he regains strength coming out of surgery. After all, relievers are typically capable of retaining high velocity longer than starters, and Holland’s fastball velocity began the year at nearly 95 before declining due to (presumably) exhaustion:
If Holland is still gaining strength and his fastball increases in velocity next year, whoever signs him will be rewarded with a dominant closer who puts up the ungodly statistics that Holland did from 2012-2014 in Kansas City. But if his fastball velocity continues to drop, Holland becomes much less effective than he was this year, and any team that signs him will receive a slider-first pitcher with declining stuff for the next four years.
If the uncertainty of possible outcomes for Holland sounds familiar, that’s because it is. This is a slightly different version of the Holland debate last year. Last year, teams were forced to bet on whether Holland’s arm could survive Tommy John surgery. The Rockies made that bet and won. This year, teams will bet on whether Holland can continue to recover from Tommy John surgery and completely regain the form that has made him so lethal in the past. The difference between the two years—and the reason why the Rockies should not sign Holland—is that this time, they won’t have a way to mitigate their risk.
3. Holland is seeking a contract that doesn’t fit him
What makes the reliever market unique is that, generally speaking, top performing relievers are both extremely valuable and extremely volatile. Take the top ten relievers in 2017 measured by WAR. Remarkably, six of those pitchers didn’t have a WAR above 0.5 in 2016. Anthony Swarzak’s ERA in 2016 was 5.52. Corey Knebel’s was 4.62, and Mike Minor’s was 4.47. In 2016, our favorite former Rockie, Tommy Kahnle, walked almost as many people as he struck out. Pat Neshek was traded to the Phillies for a player to be named later, and Chad Green was demoted to the bullpen after he failed in the rotation. All of these pitchers were among the best relief pitchers in baseball in 2017.
The market responds by rewarding the best closers not for their single-season dominance, but for their lack of volatility. Closers with current long-term deals in excess of $10 million comprise a small and exclusive club: Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and Craig Kimbrel. What makes these relievers stand out is their demonstrated success over time. Over the last six years, Craig Kimbrel’s FIP has never exceeded 2.92; Kenley Jansen’s has always been under 2.40, and Aroldis Chapman’s has never been above 2.56. It’s also worth noting that even in this tier, it’s impossible to eliminate volatility completely—Melancon had similarly dominant numbers and still put up a subpar year with the Giants.
This gets to the heart of the problem with re-signing Holland. He had a great year, but he’s seeking a contract that is reserved for top-tier closers, and top-tier contracts are reserved for those relief pitchers who can minimize volatility across multiple years—basically, those pitchers who can nearly guarantee future performance in a volatile marketplace. Holland can’t promise that. He’s still a pitcher whose future performance is very much in question because of his durability and fastball velocity.
What Holland is best suited for is a contract that resembles last years’ deal. The team that signs him will be making a bet on his fastball velocity, and they could get lucky. But they could also lose, and the only way to guard against that is to sign a deal that assigns the risk accordingly. Holland agreed to that deal once, but he won’t do it again. And for that reason, the Rockies should look elsewhere for bullpen help this off-season.