Difference Maker: Derek Holland

Holland
There are a lot of good vocabulary words that could be used to describe Derek Holland to this point in his career: polarizing; mercurial; disappointing; tantalizing. The 26-year old Holland has flashed signs of greatness in his four-year MLB career, but his overall body of work has been at or below average.

To illustrate that point: in 2009, 2011, and 2012, no Rangers starter had a game with a higher game score than Holland (88, 84, and 83 respectively). However, in those seasons Holland ranked 6th, 4th, and 4th among Rangers starters in ERA for the season. He has the potential to reach the highest of heights among his peers, but has failed to do so for prolonged stretches, or with any measure of consistency.
I don’t think that 2013 will be the year that Holland magically turns a corner and reaches his ultimate ceiling (of a good #2 starter), but I do think 2013 will be a year Holland steps forward from what he has been to this point, and maybe keeps the hope of him reaching that ceiling from being completely snuffed out.

Mental

There is a lot to be said about the mental aspect of the game, from Yogi Berra to sports psychologists, of which I am neither. However, I am a firm believer that a player’s mental approach has a significant impact on his performance on the field.I’ve discussed before how I believe Holland’s career will mirror Cliff Lee’s career, to a degree, containing many peaks and valleys before settling into what he will become. I think Lee’s development of his approach on the mound is a big reason he progressed from being sent down to the minors at age 28 to winning the Cy Young award the next season. For Holland as well it won’t be a physical change, but a mental one that moves him in the right direction.

This year, Holland has committed to the Rangers front office that he is going to focus more of his energy to what he is doing between the lines, and eliminate some of the distractions outside of them. That means no more weekly radio interviews, no more late-night local weather reporting, and maybe-hopefully-probably no more Schwarzenegger impersonations on national television during a playoff game.

The rationale for the change, as explained by Jon Daniels, is simply that for anyone to be great at what they do there comes a point in time when it requires their undivided attention. For a player with Holland’s personality, this may be a challenge, but successfully funneling his energy into a singular pursuit could also pay off with a huge reward.

Causes of Concern

It is not a slam dunk that Holland will be better in 2013. There are certainly many obstacles and warning signs for him to hurdle.

For starters, Holland hit the disabled list for the second time in three years due to issues with his throwing shoulder. Shoulder issues are always more concerning than something with the elbow. The silver lining is that Holland’s shoulder issues in 2012 were not structural, but were classified as fatigue as a result of a stomach virus that caused him to lose a lot of weight and put additional strain on his body.

Holland wound up with a 4.67 ERA in 2012, and it’s not as though he was obviously unlucky. Holland’s ground ball rate dropped from 46.4% in 2011 to 43.1% in 2012, which makes 2011 the anomaly in his career and 43% closer to the norm. The reduction in ground balls is a big reason Holland’s home ERA was 5.55 in 2012, despite a serviceable 3.65 on the road. His BABIP rate in 2012 was .261, well below his career average of .294. There is not much there that points to his 2012 struggles being misfortune that will vanish the following year.

The blow-up game has long been a part of the Derek Holland story. His manager has often commented on Holland’s struggles to finish an at-bat once he gets to two strikes, or an inning once he collects two outs. Ron Washington has made more mound visits to Holland without removing him, just to help him regain his focus (a habit that I want to see go away in 2013 — take off the training wheels) than all the other Rangers pitchers combined. Holland had six starts in 2012 of allowing at least six runs. If he never gets away from those blow-up games, he’ll never reach the level of consistency we all want to see out of him.

Areas for Improvement

Looking at his stat sheet, to go along with the obvious causes of concern, there are some metrics that we can look to as highlighting progress Holland has already made, or negative trends that shouldn’t be sustainable.

Perhaps the biggest downfalls of 2012 for Holland were home runs and his performance with men on base.

Of balls put in play against Holland, 40% of them were fly balls (up from 34% in 2011). His HR/fly ball rate jumped to a career-worst 15%. Where Holland got into the most trouble with the home run was on his off-speed and breaking pitches. A 15% HR/FB ratio should come down, particularly if Holland leaves less soft stuff floating out over the plate.

With runners in scoring position, opposing batters hit an astronomical .333/.365/.667 off of Holland in 2012. There is nothing to suggest that Holland has always struggled this mightily pitching with runners on base. There is certainly nowhere to go for this area of performance but for it to improve in 2013.

Holland also improved his K% and BB% in 2012 over 2011, which are both positive signs for a pitcher in his physical prime years.

Expectations

The last game that Holland pitched before the 2012 season began was perhaps the greatest game pitched in Texas Rangers history. He went 8.1 shutout innings in World Series Game 4, allowing two hits and two walks, while striking out seven. This put the finishing touches on a second half of the 2011 season in which Holland went 10-1 in 15 starts with a 2.77 ERA, including three complete game shutouts.

2012 was supposed to be the year that Holland built on all of that goodness from the end of 2011, and potentially step into the leading role of the Rangers rotation.

Now, in 2013, the expectation levels for Holland are nowhere close to what they were one year ago. Many have written Holland off, saying that after 570 MLB innings we know he is never going to be more than what he is. Holland knows this, and according to Daniels, “He gives off the vibe that he has something to prove.”

I like a player that is playing like he has something to prove. One way or another, he’ll prove something, but I tend to think he’ll prove that he can still be a difference maker on this club for years to come.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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