Pop quiz: Under what circumstances is it reasonable to be excited about a pitcher who posted a 6.12 ERA last season?
Answer: When that pitcher is Texas Rangers left-hander Derek Holland .
Derek Holland ‘s first season in the Majors was superficially poor. He went 8-13 with 26 homers allowed and had a 6.12 ERA. But look a little bit closer, at the events over which Holland — or any pitcher — exerts the most control, and the young lefty’s season has to be considered a success.
He posted a strikeout rate of 6.96 K/9, a walk rate of only 3.06 BB/9, and induced ground balls on 41.5 percent of balls in plays (only slightly below league average of around 43 percent). All that added up to a 4.38 xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, normalized for home-run rate), which is designed to look like ERA, but removes all the elements of luck. For a 22-year-old in his big league debut, a 4.38 xFIP is excellent.
So what’s the disconnect here? Basically everything that could go wrong for Holland did go wrong. His batting average on balls in play was .321, compared to a league average right around .300. His left-on-base percentage (a.k.a. strand rate) came in at 64.7 percent, below a typical figure of 70 percent. Home runs per fly ball? Yep, he got unlucky there, too, conceding homers on about 15 percent of fly balls, even while the average pitcher finds his number settling somewhere in the range of 10 percent. These are all elements of pitching that the pitcher has little control over. When these stats deviate heavily from the norm, it usually points to luck.
All of which is why there was some confusion among the sabermetric ranks when Texas opted to begin the season with the less talented Matt Harrison  in the big league rotation while Holland got sent down to Triple-A. Such confusion was justified: Holland breezed his way through six Pacific Coast League starts (38 2/3 IP, 37 strikeouts, seven walks — good for a 2.44 xFIP). Over six starts of his own, Harrison struggled, posting a mediocre 4.82 xFIP before finding his way to the 15-day disabled list with bicep tendinitis.
Yesterday, making his season debut in Harrison’s vacated rotation spot against the A’s, Holland pitched like the guy we could have expected. He went six innings, struck out seven, walked one, and induced grounders on over half of his balls in play. He didn’t allow a run and earned him a much-deserved win.
If Holland is able to come close to matching last night’s performance in his next start — most likely next Monday, at home, versus the struggling Angels — he is almost certain to take Harrison’s spot. Such a course of events would be quite intriguing, as it should give the Rangers — along with Colby Lewis , Rich Harden , C.J. Wilson , and Scott Feldman  — one of the deepest starting rotations in the league.