Detroit — So, how did Derek Holland get here?
Through all the ups and downs with Texas, the injuries, the nomadic journey from team to team (White Sox, Giants, Cubs, Pirates); from last Aug. 8 against the Tigers when he gave up four home runs to the first five batters in Pittsburgh to pitching eight scoreless innings as a non-roster invitee for the Tigers this spring and securing a spot in the bullpen?
How? Well, it took a village.
As he explained Saturday, Team Holland includes national pitching instructor Ryan Sullins and the APEC training center in Fort Worth, Texas. It includes Texas Rangers psychiatrist Don Kalkstein and longtime pitching coach and trainer Tom House.
And even before that, you could credit as early mentors former Rangers pitchers Daren Oliver, Eddie Guardado and Kevin Millwood.
They all played a role in Holland’s apparent rebirth, at age 34, as a multiuse relief pitcher.
“My favorite part about that was people were already doubting me, saying I’m old, saying I’m washed up, that I didn’t have it anymore,” Holland said. “And here I am.”
Oh, he’s here. He punched out 13 hitters in those eight innings, featuring lively four-seam and two-seam fastballs that for three-, four-, and five-out stints have stayed firm at 94-95 mph.
“This is the first time in a while I can say the velocity is there,” he said. “I’m not old. I’m not washed up. It’s funny to see some of the negativity I get to see out there on the internet. I love it. Let them hate. Let them talk all the crap they want.
“I’m doing something I put my mind to and I am going to continue to work my butt off to get where I am. The results will speak for themselves.”
His work with Kalkstein helped him with focus and priorities and with letting go of the negative energy and embracing the positive. Or, as in the case of the internet trolls, channeling the negativity into constructive motivation.
“I still have it,” Holland said. “I believed in myself and I continue to believe in myself. I never let any of the doubters, any of the haters be a distraction to me. I know my mind has been where it needs to be.”
Working with Sullins, Holland got a better handle on his mechanics. And using the technology at Sullins’ lab, he was able to reshape his curveball, using a knuckle-curve grip and get more movement on his fastballs.
Training at APEC helped him increase his overall physical strength, and his baseball-specific agility, flexibility and strength.
Holland, though, credits House with the velo spike. When he was with the White Sox in 2017, Holland’s fastball velocity had dipped to a career-low 91 mph. House, a former left-handed pitcher himself, who has not only trained some of the top pitchers in the game but also a batch of NFL quarterbacks, offered to work with Holland.
“I began using his weighted ball program in 2018 and I’ve seen increases each year,” Holland said.
By the end of last season in Pittsburgh, working in shorter relief stints, Holland’s velocity was hitting 94 again. Tigers scouts and analytics team took note of that and they offered a make-good minor-league deal.
And Holland came in throwing 95-mph bullets right out of the gate.
“He outpitched everybody he was in competition with,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I think rewarding him with a roster spot was one of the bigger no-brainers of guys we were able to add to the organization.”
The velocity spike was a mild surprise, but his weaponry against right-handed hitters was revelatory. Right-handers have done considerable damage against him throughout his career. Over the last four years, righties have posted an OPS of .940 and have accounted for 76 of the 82 homers he’s allowed.
Then, his best weapon against them was his change-up. This spring he has neutralized them with the knuckle-curve which breaks hard down and the 94-mph two-seamer which spins away from right-handed hitters.
“What’s crazy is the curveball was my weakest pitch of all of them,” Holland said. “It’s become one of my better pitches now. Also, coming out of the bullpen, with the added adrenaline rush, I seem better able to establish my off-speed pitches. I feel like I’m staying through them a lot better.
“I’m getting a lot of action on my two-seamer, which is huge for me. I’ve been using it my whole career, but now I’m able to command both sides of the plate better than I had in the past.”
Holland doesn’t exactly know how Hinch plans to use him. Frankly, he doesn’t care.
“People know I’m a guy who just says, give me the ball and I’m going to give you everything I’ve got every single time,” he said. “Whether I’m getting my teeth kicked in and I have to wear it or I’m having a good day — I’m going to be there.”
That goes back to lessons he learned early in his career from Oliver, Guardado and Millwood, who essentially told him, get over yourself and embrace whatever role you’re lucky to play in this league.
“Those guys told me, ‘You’re not always going to be a starter,’” Holland said. “’At some point, you’re going to become a reliever and when it’s time to make that transition, accept it. Don’t hold on trying to be a starter.’”
Funny, some 12 years having that told to him, he’s now passing that advice onto teammate Michael Fulmer, who is in the first year of making a similar transition.
“Take the new challenge,” was his advice to Fulmer. “Don’t rule out being a starter, but you have to take the next opportunity. They’re giving you a chance. They have faith in you. They’re riding with you because they care about you.
“Hey, you never know, you might find something you didn’t know about yourself. Maybe you’re an unbelievable reliever…Take what you’ve got now, focus on being a good bullpen guy, teammate and leader in the bullpen.”
Shoot, it worked for Holland.
“I feel like I’ve found a new chapter for my career that I get to run with,” he said. “Hopefully it can go as long as it needs to. I want to be like Daren Oliver (who pitched in the big leagues for 20 years) and have that second chapter to my baseball career.”