Coors Field is typically not the arena upon which pitchers settle to rebuild their value. They go there because they were conscripted into service, having been drafted by the Rockies. They go there because the Rockies offered them a considerable sum for their services.
For years, Coors Field has been one of baseball’s most difficult places to pitch. It remains that way in the present.
Which brings us to Greg Holland and his curious decision to sign with the Rockies. Nicolas Stellini covered all the details of the one-year deal with a vesting option already. What I’d like to consider here is the wisdom of the deal from Holland’s perspective.
Greg Holland is either a very confident man or the Rockies’ offer to him represented the best that he’d received this offseason or, perhaps, both. There was other reported interest from the Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Rays, and Reds.
As a free-agent pitcher recovering either from injury or a poor season works down his preference list of those places he’d like to salvage his career, Coors Field typically comes up near the end.
And there’s evidence to support that line of thinking. Consider: of the 80 most lucrative contracts in the sport’s history, most being free-agent deals, none was awarded to a pitcher who had most recently pitched for the Rockies.
This offseason, Rockies free-agent pitcher Jorge de la Rosa is still looking for work. Over the last decade, there is little evidence of pitchers having rebuilt careers, or added value to their market worth, in Denver.
Yes, John Axford signed a two-year, $10 million deal after pitching there in 2015.
Yes, Huston Street signed a two-year, $14 million deal with the Padres in 2013 after a successful run in Denver.
Yes, Jason Marquis signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Nationals after he managed to make 33 starts and pitch 216 innings in Coors Field in 2009.
And Brian Fuentes signed a two-year, $17.5 million deal with the Angels in 2009 after a mostly successful run as the Rockies closer.
But those, my friends, represent basically all the success stories of free-agent pitchers escaping Coors Field since 2006. That’s the history of multi-year, free-agent deals signed by pitchers leaving the Rockies over the last decade, according to my semi-exhaustive research.
More often, pitchers departing Denver are leaving with ugly statistical histories and entering a market skeptical of their ability to pitch nearer sea level. In a few notable cases, clubs have acquired pitchers off the Colorado scrap heap and gotten real production out of them.
Collin McHugh, for example, struggled enough with the Rockies that he was designated for assignment by the club. Claimed by the Astros, he’s become a quality major-league starting pitcher while making roughly the league minimum.
Juan Nicasio’s tenure with the club ended when he was traded unceremoniously to the Dodgers for a player to be named later. He’s been effective as a reliever both for Los Angeles and Pittsburgh in the meantime — and is under contract for less than $4 million with the Pirates.
Former Rockies top pitching prospect Christian Friedrich was released by the Rockies last February. After signing a minor-league contract with the Padres, he proceeded to produce the best season of his career, finishing second among all San Diego pitchers by WAR.
Relatively speaking, Coors Field is not the place to go if you have a get-rich-quick scheme in mind as a reclamation-type pitcher. In fact, there is perhaps a bias against free-agent pitchers leaving Denver with teams even skeptical of even apparent underlying skills.
The cases both of McHugh and Nicasio and maybe even of Friedruch in recent years suggest that ex-Rockies arms are perhaps undervalued relative to their true-talent level. That’s good for the club acquiring them, but it’s not a selling point when voluntarily choosing to pitch there.
Some might have forgotten how dominant Holland was before being shut down in the 2015 season and later undergoing Tommy John surgery.
From 2012 to -14, Holland was third in baseball in WAR among relief pitchers, trailing only Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman by that measure. He was sixth in strikeout and walk-rate differential (with a 27-point K-BB%), fourth in ERA (1.88) and third in FIP (1.83). He also recorded 109 saves, if you’re into that type of thing.
We don’t know what to expect of the 31-year-old in 2017 or beyond. We do know in a showcase for scouts his fastball velocity was 90-91 mph in November according to the Kansas City Star. When he was closing games for the Royals, his fastball was 95-96 mph.
Perhaps more important, we don’t know if he’ll still have this…
From 2012 to -14, Holland possessed the best slider among relievers in baseball according to many eyewitness accounts, and according to FanGraphs’ linear weights.
How the slider plays in Denver is another thing entirely.
We might not even know if Holland has his stuff back after he pitches next season. We can debate whether Holland would have been better served by taking a lesser deal elsewhere in an attempt to prove that he can reproduce his 2012-14 levels.
While rebuilding value in Pittsburgh or Miami or San Diego or San Francisco or Los Angeles or Seattle would seem to be preferable for most pitchers, the Holland signing makes quite a bit of sense for the Rockies. According to FanGraphs projections, Holland is forecasted to be the Rockies’ third-most valuable reliever in 2017, striking out better than a batter per inning. A low-risk, high-upside option like Holland makes sense for the Rockies.
But as for Holland, there’s no guarantee he’s set himself up for a success or for a better contract by choosing Colorado as his new home. It’s a bet on himself, but it’s a risk-laden one.