Detroit Tigers’ Derek Holland wants to teach prospects to ‘keep fighting’

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Derek Holland will never forget his first 11 pitches against the Detroit Tigers last season. He recalls confidently taking the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 8 at PNC Park, knowing he had to salvage the bullpen.

The night before, the teams combined for 30 runs in 11 innings and used 14 total relievers, so the Pirates were counting on Holland. The 12-year veteran, with more than 300 games on his resume, felt prepared for the task.

Those 11 pitches, however, were a nightmare. The 34-year-old, who, along with infielder Drew Ward on Saturday, signed with the Tigers on minor-league contract, gave up four home runs — to Niko Goodrum, Miguel Cabrera, C.J. Cron and Jeimer Candelario — with a Jonathan Schoop single mixed in.

Five runs. Zero outs. 11 pitches.

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“The one that really stood out was the one that Miggy hit off me,” Holland told the Free Press on Sunday, adding he later realized he accidentally tipped his pitches with slight hand movements. “He’s a Hall of Famer, no doubt. I love the dude. But the pitch that he hit, it looked like he golfed it out. And I was like, ‘OK, today I don’t have my stuff, but no matter what, I can’t give in. I got to keep fighting and get through this. I just can’t tap out.'”

It’s easy to remember Holland’s failures that day, but he accomplished his main goal by pitching into the sixth inning and throwing 112 pitches. He is bringing a similar never-quit attitude — with a mentor’s mindset — to spring training, where he will compete for a spot on the big-league roster.

The Tigers will use him exclusively as a reliever.

“I’m ready for that new chapter in my life,” Holland said. “I want to earn the respect of my teammates and earn a spot on this team. We’re all going after the same thing. … I’m ready for whatever challenges are ahead, but first things first, I got to make the team.”

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Holland admits he would not have responded to the four-homer, 11-pitch situation with as much optimism earlier in his career. When he was called up by the Texas Rangers in 2009, he leaned on many veterans, including former Tiger Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and Kevin Millwood.

An older player once put him in “timeout” during a game for talking too much.

“They always had something for me, and (they) helped me become what I am today,” Holland said. “I’m blessed to be in this situation. And I want to be the guy who helped me. I want to be the guy who helps those that are following in my footsteps.”

The Tigers possess one of the best farm system’s in baseball, featuring young arms Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. Even the position prospects could benefit from learning how to keep their emotions steady amid tough on-field situations.

Mize and Skubal are the team’s second- and fifth-best prospects, respectively, according to MLB Pipeline. They made their MLB debuts in 2020 but struggled. Mize logged a 6.99 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 13 walks in 28⅓ innings; Skubal finished with a 5.63 ERA, 37 strikeouts and 11 walks in 32 innings.

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“I want them to be successful,” Holland said. “I want them to realize they’re talented. Sometimes, we put a little too much pressure on ourselves when we get up here. Just get up there and enjoy yourself. If you go out there and do your job, you don’t have to worry about getting sent down. And if you do get sent down, use it as motivation. … Don’t let the negativity overtake you.”

Still, Holland wants to contribute on the field, too. He has a career 4.61 ERA and a 1.371 WHIP in 1,416⅓ innings across 307 games (227 starts).

Between 2018 and 2019, Holland dominated left-handed hitters, combining for a 1.66 ERA, 49 strikeouts and 26 walks in 70⅓ innings. Facing lefties in a reliever role during those two years, he issued only two earned runs in 21⅓ innings.

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That’s how the Tigers hope Holland fits into their 2021 plans — a reliever to attack left-handed hitters. But Holland doesn’t want to be known exclusively as a lefty specialist, especially not in the era of the three-batter minimum rule.

“I’ve had really good numbers against lefties my entire career,” Holland said. “I want to be able to show I can get right-handers out, too. I don’t care who’s up at the plate. I’m going to give my best efforts and give everything I got against whoever it is.”

The Tigers’ starters logged a league-worst 6.37 ERA last year. Relievers had a 4.94 ERA, putting them sixth-worst in the majors. Despite Holland’s 6.86 ERA last season, he boasted a 25.1% strikeout rate and 8.4% walk rate. (He had 45 strikeouts and 15 walks in 40⅔ innings.)

“Just not being so nit-picky,” Holland said. “When I say that, I mean not trying to just nibble (but) going right after guys. If they’re going to hit it, let my defense do the things behind me. That’s what they’re there for. I’ve made the mistake of trying to be too perfect.”

There’s plenty Holland believes he can offer the Tigers, from serving as a reliable reliever to a teacher for the prospects.

His tryout begins soon. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report Feb. 17 to Lakeland, Florida.

“I’ll make sure I put everything into it,” Holland said. “That’s always been my goal.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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