Derek Holland’s All About The Slider

Look at the list of two-pitch starters these days, and you won’t find any left-handers. That’s probably because lefty starters have to think about opposite-handed hitters more than anyone. That’s probably also why more lefties use changeups than righties — the pitch is more effective against opposite-handed batters.

Well, Derek Holland’s changeup has seen better days, he’ll admit it. And he doesn’t throw his semi-consistent curve all that much. So how does the Ranger’s mustachioed lefty make it work?

For his career, his changeup gets about 10% whiffs and 36% grounders, which is decidedly below average. He knows all about it. “It’s a very tough pitch,” Holland admitted before a game with the Athletics. “Sometimes it’ll cut. On accident.”

Still searching for the right grip?

He swears it wasn’t always this way: “I used to have a really good changeup, and then I started toying around grips because it was getting firmer and I was freaking out — so I tried different grips and then I lost it for a bit.”

Rehab actually gave him the opportunity to work on the change. “The best way to practice it is to throw it during long toss,” Holland said. “The more you long toss, the more you actually have to throw the dang ball.” The small-sample results on the change so far this year are better (15% swinging strikes, 86% grounders), but the pitch still lacks the fade and depth that you’d like from a strong changeup. His sinker fades more and the change only drops a half inch or so more than the sinker.

That’s okay when you’ve got one of the best sliders in the game. Until Clayton Kershaw‘s most recent start, Holland owned the best swinging strike rate on a slider in the game (among starters). A strong game from the Dodger pushed him up to 30.1%, but Derek Holland‘s 29.1% is nothing to sneeze at, especially when third place among regularly-thrown sliders is Carlos Carrasco’s 26.5%.

So much nastiness born of a simple grip.

Still, the slider has platoon splits, and Holland is a lefty. What does he do to keep righties guessing? “Backfoot, backdoor, I just try to move it around, I don’t want it to be in one spot, so that they can look for that,” Holland said. “I’m trying to show them that not only can I do it there, I can throw it back here, I can throw it behind in the count, ahead in the count, I can do whatever with it — we work on that in bullpens, go through the system every time.”

He may move it around some, but a slider moving into the heart of the plate against a righty is a terrifying thing. It looks like the back foot is his salvation, according to this chart of his slider locations to righties:

chart (27)

Provided you don’t actually hit the back foot, that’s a fairly nasty pitch. Mr. Holland’s opus looks like it’s headed to the wheelhouse — most righties love the pitch low and in — and then it breaks out of the zone. That’s how the lefty has limited all hitters to a 46 wRC+ off the pitch in his career, despite seeing twice as many righties as lefties.

The backfoot slider to a righty, in action.

While his slider location may be more predictable than he’d like, Holland has been very successful in mastering command of the slider to the point that he can throw the pitch in any count. His usage of the slider over his career only dips from 14% in no-ball counts to 11% in three-ball counts. It’s hard to sit fastball on him.

Still, it’d be nice to have a legit third weapon. If it doesn’t come from the change, it may come from the curve. Though the movement isn’t always consistent on his knuckle curve, it’s effective in other ways. “It’s not a true hammer — at times it’ll be 12-to-6, at times it will be 11-to-5, it kind of tilts from time to time,” said Holland. “You can see it in the velocity. And the change in eye-level.” The curve gives him his only pitch in the 70s, and the biggest drop on any of his pitches.

Holland’s knuckle isn’t dug into a seam like other knuckles in many of the nastier knuckle curves.

The curve doesn’t have great peripherals (7% whiff rate, 30% ground-ball rate), but it can serve to make his fastball more effective, particularly high in the zone. “I can throw a curveball and then all of a sudden I can throw an elevated fastball,” Holland said. “All about changing eye level.” Holland does love the high fastball:

chart (28)

With velocity that is — even with a bit of a drop this year — at least two miles per hour faster than the average lefty starter, maybe that high strike isn’t so dangerous. But when I mentioned Texas… “Gotta be careful,” Holland admitted. As much as the high fastball can be a weapon, it’s better in small doses. “The thing that we are taught is don’t live up in the zone,” Holland said. “We’re taught to be down and then elevate by design. Try to change it up. Don’t live in one little area.”

Since he features two inconsistent secondary pitches, one of the best sliders in the game, and plus velocity, the future isn’t written for the lovable lefty. When he starts tonight, watch the curve and change for depth, and maybe his slider usage in fastball counts. Those will be important for him going forward.

But rehab may have helped him in a way that will make all of his pitches better. “When I was rehabbing, I wanted to make sure I could command every pitch,” Holland said. He could do more with his arm, since it was a leg injury, but he still had to watch out: “Once I started playing catch, you start to see how much the knee can let you do things. It’s my pushoff leg, so I got to make sure I’m using it the right way because that could lead to other problems.”

So he played catch most of the summer. It was still constructive time. “Any time I’m playing catch, I want to hit the spot,” Holland said of his pre-mound rehab work. “I don’t ever want to hit the guy in the chest, I want to hit in the shoulder. I’m never going to throw the ball and try to hit the catcher in the chest. But you can work on that just playing catch.”

Maybe a little bit more command will really tie the whole package together. If so, we’ll finally know for certain how important playing catch really is.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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9 years ago

As a pitcher (albeit one playing in a men’s league) I love this series and always enjoy reading about the variety of grips the pitchers in the major leagues use! Thanks!