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Game 4 ALCS Review: Derek Holland

The fourth game of the ALCS was, as we might have predicted, the least watchable game of this series. A.J. Burnett was better than Tommy Hunter early, but both pitchers were getting hit hard by the end of their outings, and it didn’t make for captivating television. While the Texas offense is its own story, I believe the only real compelling storyline was the performance of the game’s winning pitcher, Derek Holland. After entering the game in an impossible position — to quote Joe Sheehan’s Twitter account, “100 minutes late, the Rangers get their fourth-best starter into the game” — Holland continued to state his case for the Rangers rotation next season.

Last year, after a season where his xFIP was better than his FIP which was better than his ERA, Holland entered the 2010 season as a popular breakout pick. But Ron Washington wasn’t as forgivable of Holland’s 2009 HR/FB ratio as the sabermetric crowd, and the lefty entered Spring Training in a competition for a rotation spot. After a knee injury shortened his camp, Holland had little chance at winning the job, earning a ticket to Triple-A, where he’d made just one start in his career. The reason is the Rangers player development staff decided his talents were advanced enough to render the league unnecessary, and given the six starts that led to his big league call-up in May, they were right: 0.93 ERA, 38.2 IP, 7 BB, 1 HR, 37 K.

Lest I waste too much space on a review of his season, we’ll hit the highlights: a great season debut against Oakland; a shoulder injury on May 30; a knee injury during his rehab; a mediocre return to Triple-A; a spot in the big league rotation on September 3; and prep for his forthcoming playoff middle relief role near the end of the season. Considering the bugaboo during his 2009 campaign was the longball, it’s worth pointing out that Holland didn’t give up a long ball in 11 of his 14 appearances this season, but he gave up two in each of the other three. In September, Holland showed the best groundball abilities of any month in his career: 1.46 GB/FB, 47.7 GB%, 0.0 HR/FB%.

I point this out because against the New York Yankees prolific offense, Holland did a nice job of mixing in the two end results you want to see from your pitcher: strikeouts and groundballs. He had three and seven, respectively, facing 13 batters during his middle innings stint. Holland had good command in the outing; I expect his 3.77 BB/9 from 2010 will regress closer to the 2009 number (3.06) going forward. He was generally using a strategy you don’t see often from young pitchers: living on the inside corner to right-handed hitters, and the outside corner to left-handed hitters. By consistently pounding the inside half of the strike zone, he induced a couple ground balls by finally giving in and spotting a good low-and-outside fastball late in at-bats.

The now 24-year-old lefty threw 55 pitches in all, going fastball on 71% of his pitches. Holland, who has averaged 92.4 miles per hour with his fastball during his big league career, averaged 93.81 vs. the Yankees, touching 95 mph on numerous occasions (data courtesy of Brooks Baseball). His fastball has more movement this year, and when added to the increased velocity of pitching in relief, you saw how dangerous the pitch can be. But his weapon is the slider, as Robinson Cano can attest after three straight strikes against it to lead off the bottom of the sixth. Holland was unafraid to use the pitch against right-handed hitters, but it’s no surprise to me that he’s shown a marked and traditional platoon split in his short big league career: 3.49 FIP vs. LHH, 5.16 FIP vs. RHH.

We saw only one of his third offering, the change up, and it didn’t go well: he left it middle-middle to Derek Jeter, who started off the fifth inning with a line drive double. What remains to be seen is if the pitch can be the third dependable pitch he’ll need for rotation success (barring the addition of a cutter). In his five September starts, Holland went with the change 13.6% of the time, according to the Texas Leaguers Pitch F/X database. The pitch had the highest strike, swing, and whiff rates of any pitch during that time, but I’d also argue it had the worst command. If you see the Pitch Locations by Type graph, you’ll notice how often he leaves it middle-middle. I found just 14 instances, in 58 total pitches, where Holland threw the change-up where you’re generally supposed to: low and away to a right-hander.

Between the likelihood that Cliff Lee leaves Texas for richer pastures this winter, and the hopefully-growing realization that Tommy Hunter is not the team’s fourth-best starting option, it’s hard to imagine Derek Holland loses a chance at starting again next spring. Assuming that’s true, it is advised the left-hander spends the winter working on the command of his change-up, and to continue the work done at becoming a groundball pitcher. Given a couple looks at him this October, I think we can expect the walk rate to come down next season, the groundball rate to be somewhere between his September rate and his career 41.7 mark, and continued great performances against left-handed hitters. The key for Holland is how his approach against right-handed hitters will mature — whether he can hit the inside corner with his fastball consistently (like he did last night against the Yankees), and whether he can depend on his change (like he did not).