The Evolution of an Ace

Today, we think of Cliff Lee as the Ace pitcher who never walks anyone, eats up innings, is a perennial Cy Young candidate, and is one of a select group of pitchers you’d first choose to hand the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series. But, just 6 years ago, Cliff Lee was a hard-throwing prospect with plus stuff who had erratic command, bouncing between flashing brilliance and earning a demotion to AAA.

I have been saying for the last year and a half, to whoever would listen to me (which is predominantly my sweet wife – sorry honey), that it would not at all surprise me to see Derek Holland’s career path follow that of Cliff Lee. I’ve drawn these comparisons before for several reasons:

They both came into the league with a mid-90s fastball + three quality offspeed pitches.
They were inconsistent early in their career.
They both have those smooth mechanics that make pitching look easy, even when popping the mitt at 96mph.

In fact, if we were to compare these two players after what amounts to two full seasons of pitching in the major leagues, they are eerily similar:

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(If you take a second look at those numbers, you’ll see that surprisingly, Holland actually has better strikeout and K/BB rates than Lee – who posted a 10.28 K/BB ratio in 2010 – did after the same amount of major league experience)

Derek Holland is at a similar point in his career now as Lee was at the end of the 2005 season. For a starter who threw four complete game shutouts in 2011, the “Dutch Oven” still managed to provoke fans to demand he be traded or demoted. This is one of the Rangers top prospects, who has shown that he has the stuff to succeed at the big level. Yet, still there is an element of instability that causes many to wonder if he’ll ever put it all together and take that next step.

Obviously, it takes more than 380-390 innings of a sample size to say that Holland will absolutely turn his career into what Cliff Lee has. Lee made significant adjustments in his approach to pitching in order to improve his command and presence on the mound. Not every pitcher makes those adjustments – just look at Oliver Perez, Rick Ankiel, Dontrelle Willis, or A.J. Burnett.

For a talented pitcher, the biggest step to becoming an Ace seems to take place between the ears. One obstacle makes it tough to project that Holland can take that step – he’s a total goofball. From the wacky mustache, to the terrible impersonations, to the sporadic t-shirts, he does not emit the fortitude and mindset of an Ace. But, I think it is obvious that on the mound, the Dutch Oven is growing up. His 2011 World Series Game 4 performance alone is more than enough encouragement to display that something is there. Beyond that, Holland is incredibly active in the community and has embraced the D/FW area as his home, so even though he is nutty, he’s not a screw-up.

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The bad news is that after that 2005 season, Cliff Lee struggled in 2006 and especially in 2007, when he was actually sent to the minor leagues for half of the season. We may not yet see Holland make that jump to a top of the rotation kind of pitcher for a couple more years. We may never see him make that jump. However, in 2008, Cliff Lee became an Ace. He won his first Cy Young and has never looked back. This is not unlike the path that Roy Halladay had to take as well.

The Rangers are engaging in contract negotiations with the 25-year old Holland to lock him up in Texas for the next 5+ years. Now is the time to make that kind of move, and invest in this young pitcher’s future, with the hopes that one day he will be that something special. The ingredients are there. After learning directly from Cliff Lee for a half season, C.J. Wilson for a full year, and now an organization with Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, and Mike Maddux, this could be a young pitcher headed for an Ace career.

Peter Ellwood

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