Maybe Greg Holland Made An Inspired Choice

Yesterday, Greg Holland reportedly agreed to sign with the Colorado Rockies. As a guy coming off arm surgery, looking to re-establish himself as a premier reliever and rebuild his value, going to Denver seems to be an odd choice. As Travis Sawchik noted this morning, the recent history of pitchers escaping Colorado and finding significant paychecks are not great, and of course, because of how the park plays, Holland’s numbers are likely to be worse this year than if he had agreed to sign closer to sea level.

Generally, we’re used to players looking for big contracts next year signing in venues that fit their skills, and these type of one year deals are often called “pillow contracts”, but there’s nothing soft and comfortable about pitching in Coors Field. Maybe we need a new name for Holland’s choice? “A bed of nails contract” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily, but more accurately portrays the situation Holland seemingly placed himself in.

But in thinking about why Holland would go to Colorado, I think we need to acknowledge that the game has evolved, and the methodologies for evaluating player performances have changed dramatically. And given those changes, maybe Holland didn’t just take a short-term cash-grab that puts him in a worse position for next year; maybe he made a choice that could actually be beneficial to his future earnings.

The conventional wisdom around a pitcher going to a place like Seattle, San Diego, or Miami to rebuild their value is based on the idea that bigger ballparks will suppress home run totals, and perhaps pitching in a more friendly environment will enable the pitcher to be more aggressive in the strike zone, challenging hitters in a way that they are less willing to do in a park that penalizes mistakes a bit more. The more friendly environment helps you put up better numbers, and then with those better numbers, you land a nice big paycheck the next winter.

Except that’s not how baseball works anymore.

For instance, Mark Trumbo moved from Seattle to Baltimore, hit 47 home runs in a hitter-friendly ballpark, and was mostly rejected during free agency, eventually returning to the Orioles for half of what he reportedly wanted at the start of the winter. No player in this class better exemplified the kind of context-based improvement that pillow contracts are supposed to provide than Trumbo, even though he didn’t intentionally choose to go to Baltimore, but the market simply didn’t respond to the change in results.

And the reality is that, while Holland’s ERA would probably be better in some other park this year, there isn’t a team left out there that is paying pitchers based on their raw ERA numbers. Every organization in the sport is maintaining an internal database of performance metrics, and all of them are park and league adjusting those numbers. The days of a team getting fooled by a shiny ERA in a pitcher’s environment are over. If you run a 3.25 ERA in San Francisco or a 4.00 ERA in Colorado, every decision maker in baseball is aware of the fact that those are equally impressive performances.

So I don’t think Holland’s next paycheck is going to be all that harmed by the fact that his numbers will be superficially worse because he’s pitching in Colorado this year. If a team wants to sign Holland next winter, they’re going to look at whether the stuff came back, whether he was missing bats like he used to, and whether he was able to pitch on back to back days. They’re going to look spin rate way before they look at ERA, and they’re going to account for the fact that breaking balls don’t work as well in Colorado as they might elsewhere. Any team that wants to sign Holland next winter will be asking what he might do for them in 2018, and paying him based on the answer to that question, not based on what his 2017 numbers looked like at altitude.

And there are reasons to think that joining the Rockies might set him for a better paycheck than if he had signed with, say, the Washington Nationals. The Nationals are one of the best teams in baseball, and barring some kind of disaster, they’ll be looking to upgrade their roster all year long; it would take a lot of things going wrong to imagine Mike Rizzo acting as a seller at the trade deadline. If Holland joined the Nationals, he was probably going to pitch for them all year, and if he had a successful comeback, the Nationals probably would make him a qualifying offer after the season.

Now, the qualifying offer is changing next year, but it still has a real chance of impacting Holland if he has the kind of rebound season he’s clearly hoping for. Under the new system, a player who receives a qualifying offer will still cost a signing team some future assets; depending on the team’s market size and luxury tax status, they’ll either forfeit a second and fifth round pick plus $1 million of their international spending pool, a second round pick and $500,000 of their international money, or a third round pick. And because of the new hard-slot international pools, that loss of spending money could end serving as a pretty significant deterrent, and it’s aimed directly at teams that would be most likely to spend big on relief pitchers; the Dodgers and Yankees specifically.

By joining the Rockies, Holland likely made it far more likely that he’ll be a true unrestricted free agent next winter. Even though the Rockies consider themselves contenders, the projections don’t really see it that way, putting them at 78-84 at this point. The Rockies aren’t a guaranteed also-ran like the Padres, but there’s a pretty good chance that the Rockies will be sellers at the trade deadline. And if Holland has had a strong first few months of the year, there won’t be many trade chips in baseball more attractive than a rental relief ace.

So either the Rockies win, which Holland would probably enjoy, or they don’t win and Holland gets traded to a contender mid-season, which would mean he cannot receive a qualifying offer next winter. Either of those seem like good outcomes. There is, of course, the scenario where Holland doesn’t pitch well or stay healthy, but if that happens, well, he probably took the most guaranteed money on the table, so even then, joining the Rockies was probably the best idea, since he maximized his earnings this winter.

For Holland’s future earnings, this very well might have been the best choice he could make. While his breaking ball might not drop as much in Denver as it would elsewhere, and his park-unadjusted numbers will probably appear worse than if he went to some pitcher-friendly ballpark, future employers will account for those factors and understand that they are out of his control. And by joining the Rockies, Holland made himself less likely to get saddled with the QO tax next year, setting himself up to be bid on by teams like LA and NY, which can only help his potential 2018 earnings.

Going to Colorado in your rebuild value year might not be conventional, but in this case, I think Holland might and his agent might have made a really smart decision. And we should probably stop thinking that players should try to go fool their future employers by putting up superficially decent numbers by choosing friendly ballparks to rebuild their value. Baseball just doesn’t work like that anymore.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

Any team looking to sign Holland next offseason is going to have a problem, given that the deal includes a vesting option for 2018.

7 years ago
Reply to  alacy52

This would be a great comment if:
1. it wasn’t so snarky AND
2. it mentioned that, if the contract vests, Holland makes $14 million next year, a pretty good scenario for him
3. it also mentioned that, if he gets traded, it probably doesn’t vest at all since the vesting option is based on number of games finished.

7 years ago
Reply to  chuckb

Keep up the diligent work Fangraphs’ policeman.
“Every Article, Every Day” (the Fangraphs’ police dept. motto for those that didn’t know)

7 years ago

Was this one of those old “salute to/Real American Hero” bits from those 90’s Budweiser commercials?