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Derek Holland Changes, Slides to the Top

Derek Holland is starting to figure things out. After four up-and-down seasons, the 26-year-old lefty is pitching like a top-of-the-rotation starter. Holland has always shown the ability to surprise, but what he’s done this year is even more unexpected. Through 49.2 innings, Holland’s 2.40 FIP ranks ninth among qualified starters. Even when you adjust for his home run rate, Holland’s 3.28 xFIP says his performance is legit. Holland is relying on the same five pitches he’s used his entire career, but he’s utilizing the slider more often. The result of that change has been driving Holland’s success this season.

Holland’s slider was always rated as his best pitch, so it makes sense that he would want to use it more often. The pitch has a 5.4 pitch type value. All of Holland’s other offering have actually produced negative run values over his career. The change has been pretty drastic. After only throwing the pitch 12% of the time in 2012, Holland is using his slider 22% of the time in 2013. The only other time he’s thrown the pitch at that rate was in 2010.

The offering has always been an effective strikeout pitch. Over his career, Holland’s slider has produced a 21.57% whiff rate. He’s getting a 27.44% whiff rate in 2013, according the BrooksBaseball.net. While he’s used the pitch often with two-strikes, Holland has preferred to rely on his four-seam fastball in those situations. With two-strikes this season, he’s all sliders. Holland is using the pitch 38% of the time against lefties, and 41% against righties. His career rate with two strikes was 27% against both righties and lefties. Utilizing a slider heavily comes with some risks, but at 22%, Holland falls outside of the range for a potential increased injury risk.

It should be noted that Holland’s getting unusual batted ball data with the pitch. The pitch used to generate 47.10% ground balls. This year, it’s dropped all the way down to just 16.13%. Hitters have put Holland’s slider in the air more often than any other pitch. Holland has always had some issues with the long-ball, but his 9% HR/FB rate with the pitch is only slightly lower than his 11% career average.

There’s still a reason to expect his home run rate to be lower than normal. As a result of throwing the slider more, Holland has relied far less on his curveball. Holland’s curve has been his most homer-prone pitch over his career. Instead of using his curve, Holland has increased the usage of his change-up. Holland apparently “rediscovered” the pitch earlier in the year, according to The Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant. There’s some reason to buy into that. Holland’s change-up this year is 82 mph, three miles per hour slower than his career average with the pitch. As expected, he’s used the pitch the neutralize right-handers. It’s been a problem pitch for Holland in the past, as righties have hit .332 against it with a .605 slugging percentage. The pitch has been incredibly effective this year, though. Righties have hit .250 with a .278 slugging percentage against his improved change.

There are a couple of things going in to Holland’s success. The reliance on his slider is helping him get strikeouts, while an improved change-up is helping him keep righties in check. Using both pitches more often has the increased benefit of Holland not throwing his curveball as much. Holland has already emerged as one of the big surprises of this season. With the new approach, there’s reason to buy into continued success from Holland.