‘I know I’m in a good place’: There’s more to Tigers’ Derek Holland than a lofty ERA

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

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Lakeland, Fla. — You can take whatever you want out of an athletic performance — good or bad, sometimes both. Bad character can be exposed in a good performance, just as strong character can be revealed in a poor performance.

Let’s go back to Aug. 8, a warm, partly cloudy day at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. It was early in the season, but already the Pirates bullpen was in tatters. Manager Derek Shelton desperately needed veteran lefty Derek Holland, who was barely hanging on to a spot in the rotation, to eat up a bunch of innings against the Tigers.

Didn’t start well. Niko Goodrum led off with a home run. After a single by Jonathan Schoop, Miguel Cabrera, C.J. Cron and Jeimer Candelario went yard, back to back to back. By the time Holland retired the third out, he’d thrown 48 pitches and allowed five runs.

A lesser man would have called it a day.

“I could’ve folded,” Holland said in a phone conversation Thursday with The News. “I could’ve let that snowball bury me and I could’ve been out of that game in an instant.”

Instead, Holland bowed his neck and allowed just one more run over the next four innings, striking out six, before tiring in the sixth inning. His pitching line read nine runs, 13 hits and that’s certainly part of the story.

But the other part, one that endeared him to the Pirates coaching staff, is how he fought through that first inning, gave the club five-plus innings, threw 112 pitches, and helped get the bullpen back on track.

“You just have to continue to battle, continue to get outs,” Holland said.

Which is exactly what he’s doing here in Lakeland. At 34 and entering his 13th big-league season, Holland is in camp as a non-roster invitee, still battling, hoping to grab a spot in the Tigers’ bullpen.

“This is what I’ve had to do the last four or five years — minor-league invite, get an opportunity and do everything you can to capitalize on it,” he said after throwing a bullpen session Thursday. “But that’s always been my mentality, even when I had a contract (with the Texas Rangers). You’re still competing for a spot. Nothing is guaranteed. You still have to make the team.

“It keeps that hunger in you. If the day ever comes that I show up and I don’t have that same drive that I have now, then it’s time to hang it up.”

No fan of nerd ball

As evidenced on that August day in Pittsburgh last season, there is an enigmatic quality to Holland’s performances the past two years. The raw accumulation of statistics show a pitcher in decline. He’s posted an ERA just under 7 and a WHIP just under 1.5 bouncing between the Giants, Cubs and Pirates.

And yet, his average fastball velocity has held steady (92 mph, ticking up to 93 in shorter stints) and he still gets a 36% whiff rate with his curve ball. His strikeout rate has gone up and his walk rate has gone down. His strikeout rate per nine innings was just under 10 last season, a career-best. His strikeout rate of 25% was a career high. His strikeout-to-walk percentage of 16.8 was a career-best.

“All my numbers were good,” Holland said. “But the one that sticks out, the one people like to look at and hold on to the most is my ERA. My ERA was a touchdown last year (laughs). The extra point got blocked. Sorry. But people are so caught up in that, they don’t realize that I started and relieved last year and if you go out and have a bad inning, it’s not easy to climb back down.

“People just care about the ERA number. They don’t care about the progression of what you’re doing. That’s where the nerd side gets to me a little bit. There too much worry about the stats rather than what a guy is actually doing.”

Holland made 12 appearances last season, five starts. His ERA got busted by the nine-run outing against the Tigers and another eight-run outing. But in nine of the other 10 outings, he allowed two runs or less. In his seven relief appearances, he limited hitters to a .224 batting average and a .362 slugging percentage, while striking out 16 and walking two.

There is something there.

“I know what I’m doing on the field and the staff knows what I’m doing,” he said. “They see the results. If I’m not pitching good and the ERA continues to rise up and get worse, yeah, I get it. I understand. But I feel like everything is good and I’m continuing to progress in the right direction.”

Holland still attacks primarily with a two-seam sinker, occasionally mixing in a four-seamer. His secondary mix is the same as it’s always been — curveball (more of a vertical break at 79 mph), slider (horizontal at 82 mph) and change-up (84 mph). Last season Statcast didn’t read any of his breaking balls as sliders — though he insists he threw them regularly.

The spin rate on his fastball is in the top 16 percentile in baseball, but don’t get him started on that. Don’t ask if he thinks he should throw more four-seamers up in the zone.

“I came up without that stuff,” he said, meaning the analytics. “I never think about that. If I’m getting results, then my spin rate is not an issue. I’ll put it in a different perspective: If I’m pitching a bad game, no pitching coach ever, none that I’ve ever been around, is going to come out and tell me, ‘Hey man, your spin rate is down. If you get that back up I bet you start getting outs.’

“Stuff like that drives me insane. We put so much of that into it. That’s just my old-school mentality. It’s how I was brought up. We focus on getting outs. That’s most important.”

It will be fascinating to see how Holland interacts with new Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter — who has plenty of old-school sensibilities despite having a doctorate in pitching analytics and technology.

“I know I’m in a good place physically and mentally right now,” Holland said. “I’m just excited to be a part of this group, a young and talented group of guys. They’ve already made me feel welcome. The chemistry is already there.”

Tough battle ahead

Goal No. 1 is to make the club, obviously. And, as presently constructed, there aren’t a lot of open spots available. Right-handers Buck Farmer, Bryan Garcia, Joe Jimenez and Jose Cisnero, plus lefty Gregory Soto have a firm hold on five spots.

Left-handers Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander are expected to make the club, but they will be competing initially for rotation spots. If they end up in the bullpen, that would leave one spot. And Holland would be battling right-handers Kyle Funkhouser, John Schreiber, Nolan Blackwood and David McKay, as well as lefty non-roster invitees Ian Krol, Miguel Del Pozo and Robbie Ross.

“My whole thing is, I want to make the team and be a part of the bullpen and help the team out,” Holland said. “But also help the younger guys.”

Holland wants a chance to pay forward what veterans like Eddie Guardado, Darren Oliver and Andy Pettitte did for him when he broke into the league.

“I want these guys to feel confident and believe in themselves,” he said. “One thing I heard in this game over and over is the hardest thing to do is trust your stuff. Hopefully I can give that encouragement to these guys and let them know they are here for a reason. They have the talent. They have what it takes.”

Holland remembers how formidable the Tigers were from 2010 through 2014. He still remembers the three-run home run he gave up to Ryan Raburn that flipped the script in Game 2 of the 2011 ALCS, just as he cherishes the memory of starting the series-clinching Game 6.

He also took note of the young, scrappy talent the Tigers put on the field last season.

“This is a good organization and there’s a lot of history here,” he said. “It’s time for these guys to see that we can make history ourselves. I want to be a part of it.”


Twitter: @cmccosky

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