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Derek Holland’s High Heat

Derek Holland hit 96 MPH and sat at 94 MPH with his fastball during game two of the ALCS. That sort of velocity from a left-hander means he’s on the right track for future value. His problem Monday, and to some extent throughout the season, has been locating that fastball correctly. Perhaps the Dutch Stache should fall out of love with the high fastball again.

Going into the season, his tendency to pitch high in the zone showed in his heat maps. Much of his statistical profile flowed naturally from his preference for the high fastball. High gouda leads to strikeouts when used correctly, but they also lead to fly balls — a problem when you call the Ballpark at Arlington home. Take a look at Jered Weaver‘s high and tight to righties and Vinnie Pestano‘s higher and tighter for anecdotal evidence of the theory.

Maybe Holland heard. To begin the season at least, he focused on pitching down in the zone with some success. In a post today at Baseball Analytics, David Goliebiewski showed that Holland was able to pitch further down in the zone in the first half this year than he did in the second half.

The results showed in his per-at-bat numbers as well. The Stache improved his ground-ball rate and walked almost three-quarters of a better fewer per nine. Is this just about Holland sustaining his ability to pitch low in the zone all year?

Not quite. Take a look at the heat map for Holland’s entire year and three ‘hot spots’ emerge. They should look familiar if you look at his 2009 heat maps.

Maybe the high and tight hot spot is a strategic location that can work. It works well enough for Weaver. But those other two spots are way too high to make his coaches comfortable. Those two should be at the bottom of the zone instead of right down Broad Street. Given that this is a snapshot taken of the entire year, we avoid sample size issues. Zoom out on the year, and Holland has both pitched high in the zone and also shown a tendency to pitch to the middle of the zone. One could be strategy, the other not so much.

Back to Monday. On Monday, he threw 61 fastballs out of 76 pitches, and here’s the strike zone plot from Brooks Baseball:

This was an extreme case. Holland couldn’t even hit the zone with his high fastball. He didn’t strike a batter out, and he walked four. It was just one game, and it seemed like an outlier even for a player that likes to throw up in the zone.

But one thing does emerge while looking at all these heat maps. Control is usually divided into the ability to keep the ball in the strike zone and the ability to hit spots within the strike zone. If Holland’s inability to hit the strike zone was on display Monday, the story of his season was one about his inability to avoid the middle of the zone. He had an above-average walk rate, and yet he gave up more home runs than the average pitcher and surrendered 201 hits. The spots within the zone can be just as important, if not more, than throwing strikes.

Holland’s got a bright future. He might even grow a grown-up mustache some day. But the heights that he will reach will depend mostly on his ability to avoid drifting too close to the center of the zone.