‘Downward arc’ and ‘touching bottom’ were the kinds of words used to describe the trajectory of Derek Holland’s career at the tail end of his 2017 season with the White Sox.
But with hard work, open-mindedness and the support of his new teammates and coaches in San Francisco, he jumped headlong into the unknown with a new approach in an effort to prove to himself and everyone else that he’s still got a lot of baseball left in him.
After five solid seasons with the Rangers, the team that he came up with, his career was put on hold due to injuries two years in a row. The first came on a 2014 pre-season knee injury that required surgery after his dog, Wrigley, clipped him on a set of stairs at his home, causing a tear to the cartilage in his left knee. That put him out of commission for the first five months of the 2014 season. Then, in his first start of the 2015 season, he strained a muscle in his left shoulder shelving him for 4-1/2 months.
But the year before these truncated seasons was the best of his career, which perhaps made it all the more difficult to take for the Ohio kid who, after spending his 20s in the Lone Star State, calls Dallas home.
In 2013 Holland notched a career-high 214 innings pitched, finishing with personal-bests in ERA (3.42), strikeouts per nine innings (9) and WHIP (1.286).
He had been used to relying on backing up his changeup and slider combo to offset a deadly a 95-mph fastball, but somewhere between the canine-induced knee injury and the left shoulder strain, the velocity dropped off.
“Before, I could get away with just blowing a fastball by people — it doesn’t work like that anymore.”
With the fastball clocking in at a velocity similar to his slider, batters were able to time both pitches allowing them to sit on the fastball while fighting off the slider. It prompted him to err toward throwing more sinkers which opposing hitters were feasting on.
In 2016, his first full season back, Holland had yet to come up with a strategy to overcome the change, and it showed. His ERA rose to 4.95, his batting-average-against crept up from .254 in 2013 to .274 and he had a WHIP of 1.407.
After the season, Texas lost faith in the 30-year-old who had helped them to four postseasons. He didn’t hold a grudge against the fans, though. In his first road start at Texas’ Globe Life Park, then as a member of the White Sox, he etched ‘Thank you’ in the dirt behind the slab on the pitching mound.
“I felt like [last year] should’ve been a welcome home.”
But after starting strong in Chicago he went into a tailspin in the second half. The salt in the wound was that he got beaten up by the Rangers both times he faced them.
And the White Sox made the decision to embark on a youth movement at the end of the 2017 season, releasing Holland shortly after a late-August appearance against the Rangers in which he lasted just 2-2/3 innings conceding six runs on seven hits to Texas.
Things looked dire in the offseason, there was no way around that fact:
“Last year I started really, really well, but the second half came and — nobody’s blind to it — I pitched like crap. But when I went into the offseason I didn’t want my career to be done, I didn’t want anything to be finished. Because I know that was what was being said: ‘Well he doesn’t have it anymore,’ ‘Well he can’t do this,’ ‘He’s not any good.’”
So in the offseason ‘Dutch’ sought out Dallas trainer Sam Mulroy, who specializes in working with Major League ballplayers:
“I told him: ‘We gotta get back after it, I wanna make sure that I don’t only just start off good I wanna finish [the season well].”
The next step was finding an opportunity in 2018. And like more than a few of the Giants on the roster this year, he appeared at the Giants Spring Training complex in Scottsdale, a non-roster invitee.
“I only asked the Giants if they would give me an opportunity to at least compete for it.”
It was largely assumed Holland’s best case scenario would be to fight one of the young guys for the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation, but Ty Blach and Chris Stratton put up pretty impressive numbers in Arizona, and Holland didn’t look especially sharp. When he broke camp he’d allowed six homers in 20 innings and owned a 4.05 ERA.
But on ace Madison Bumgarner’s last spring start, a line drive off the bat of Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield fractured the Giants horse’s left pinkie knuckle, throwing off San Francisco’s well-laid plans.
It also opened the door, just a crack, for Holland:
“Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt. But you know I got that opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it. I [told] myself, ‘You have this chance, you’ve gotta run with it,’ and I tried to do everything I could.”
Now, with just over a month left in the season, Holland leads all Giants pitchers in innings pitched (140-2/3) while carrying a respectable ERA (3.65) and WHIP (1.28).
2018 didn’t start off as a cakewalk for ‘Dutch,’ though. In his first 11 starts from the season’s commencement through the end of May he struggled, going 4-7 in 51-1/3 innings and racking up a 4.95 ERA, allowing nine homers.
But at the end of May a couple of teammates noticed that he had the potential to increase his deception if he switched to the other side of the rubber
“‘Longo’ [Evan Longoria] always tracks my bullpens and he brought it to my attention, so did ‘Hundo’ [Nick Hundley]. We just felt like ‘Hey what do we have to lose?’ So I tried it out and kinda just stuck with it from there.”
Longoria said he was glad to help in any way he could but he noted that the important work came from Holland:
“Nick and I had talked a little bit and I had faced Holland so much [as a Tampa Bay Ray] and I just thought if he was struggling to get swings and misses for whatever reason I thought that it could make him more effective if he moved to the other side [of the rubber].”
“We’d talked about it for a couple weeks and then when he decided to make the switch. I know ‘Longo’ went out to see what the shape of his pitches were and give him feedback — that’s an awesome teammate.”
The veteran catcher explained that it was about forcing hitters to cover more ground:
“He’s making guys defend the outside of the plate as well as the inside of the plate [for] right-handed hitters. He’s always had success against left-handed batters, but when the right-handed hitter only has to cover one side of the plate it makes it a little tougher to get ahead of counts and get guys out consistently, so when you can expand the plate and make it a little wider it’s a tougher at-bat.”
But both Hundley and Longoria emphasized that it was really Holland’s willingness to commit to the new approach and put in the hard work that made more of a difference than anything.
Holland agrees that one of the biggest keys behind the success of putting his teammates’ insights to good use in his reinvention was that he stuck with it. He said:
“What a lot of people do is they try something one time and then if it doesn’t work, they can it. You gotta try things multiple times just to get a feel and make sure. Hey maybe that one time was just — you’re getting a feel for it — second time, now it’s coming together and then the third time it’s really there.”
And since he made the change, Holland’s performance has gone in one direction: up. From
June to now he’s 4-2 with a 2.72 ERA and he’s holding hitters to a .244 batting average. His ERA on the season is just a touch above the 3.42 low he hit in 2013. He’s allowed more than three runs just once since May, when Pittsburgh tagged him for four on August 10, and at this pace it’s likely he could beat his career-best ERA by season’s end.
But it’s not just that his numbers are trending in a positive direction, in some areas he’s performing better than ever. He has a strikeout rate of 24 percent. The closest he’s ever come to that mark was eight years ago when he hit 21 percent. And his swing-and-miss rate is also at a career-high 18 percent.
“I’ve been told obviously that this is the highest of my career, which, I’m not blind, I looked at [the stats], too. It just goes to show you just gotta continue to keep putting the work in and it’s also proving to people I’m not done. I’m still here, I can still pitch I can still do what I was [doing] and I’m actually doing it better than [I did] having the velo that I had [before].”
Holland was unfazed by a brief sojourn in the bullpen when it appeared that Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto were healthy enough to rejoin the rotation. He was just as effective coming on in relief and when neither Cueto nor Samardzija were able to stay healthy it was a no-brainer for the Giants to return him to his role in the rotation.
Manager Bruce Bochy has been pulling for Holland’s bounce back this season and has been very impressed with his dedication and what he brings to the team:
“He’s been a great soldier and he’s never complained [even] when we put him in the bullpen despite [that] he’d been doing well as a starter. He just wants to help the team. Then you look at the stuff, [it] plays—the velocity, the secondary pitches.”
“Also he’s a great teammate. He’s a guy that helps keep the guys loose, and he has a lot of fun playing.”
Holland’s seventh win of 2018 came Sunday, and though he said he went into the start viewing the Rangers as just another team. The history will always be there:
“That was one of the [clubs] that let me go, as if they didn’t see much of me continuing. So I wanted to make sure —not this start—but going into this season, and obviously last season, I wanted to be able to show that I was healthy and I wanted to be able to show that I can still pitch.”
He did indeed show all of the above, tossing 6-1/3 innings strong, allowing just one run on three hits, striking out four.
Asked if he’d accomplished everything he set out to achieve this season Holland was quick to deny that:
“I’m not done, I want to continue to keep going. No matter what I’m always gonna be hard on myself. I still feel like there needs to be more ground. I feel like I can still improve.”