Last night, with a 4-3 leading heading into the 9th inning, the Rockies called on Greg Holland to shut down his former team and provide the team with a much-needed win. With the Cardinals already winning, there were now two teams breathing down their neck in the NL Wild Card race, and a big win on the road would help stem the team’s August slide.
Holland began the inning by walking Alex Gordon, who has a 51 wRC+ this year. He then gave up back to back line drives to Whit Merrifield and Lorenzo Cain, both of which were fortunately hit right at his defenders. Melky Cabrera then singled through the left side, putting the winning run on base and bringing Eric Hosmer to the plate. Hosmer did this.
The loss dropped the Rockies to 68-58, the first time they’d only been 10 games over .500 since mid-May. It was their fourth loss in a row, and their ninth loss in their last 12 games. And once again, the team surrendered a ninth inning lead because Holland doesn’t currently look like a guy you want pitching in high-leverage situations.
Holland’s disastrous August — his ERA for the month is 15.43, which, you know, isn’t great — has brought the issue to the surface, but the reality is that Holland hasn’t been very good for a couple of month snow.
Early in the year, and especially in May, Holland was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. He was striking out nearly half the batters he faced, and his ability to shut down opponents in the ninth inning was one of the primary reasons the Rockies got off to such a strong start. But then starting in June, his command began to erode. He walked 18% of the batters he faced that month, surviving primarily by not giving up any home runs and running a .240 BABIP. He got the walk rate down to a still-too-high 13% rate in July, but started giving up homers and saw his BABIP jump up to .294, so the saves became more of the hang-on variety than the blow-them-away type of the first half.
In August, the walks are back up to 15%, but now the strikeouts have disappeared too, as he’s only striking out 18% of the batters he’s faced. And instead of getting outs on contact, batters are now crushing the ball, as Hosmer’s home run was the third one he’s allowed this month; he’d only allowed two in the first four months of the season combined.
With his command failing him and an inability to miss bats this month, Holland has already posted a staggering -2.13 WPA this month, almost double the next-worst reliever in August. The Rockies have handed Holland the ball with a lead six times this month, and four times, he’s surrendered the lead and ended up the losing pitcher.
In one of his two saves, he gave up a hit and a walk, bringing the tying run to the plate before recording the final out, and he failed to strike out any of the five Braves he faced in getting that save. Even the good outings aren’t particularly good right now.
Any time a pitcher in his first year back from major arm problems goes from great to terrible this quickly, the first thing that comes to mind is to look at the stuff. And Holland’s stuff has certainly gone the wrong way as the season has worn on, but it’s hard to blame his August struggles specifically on velocity loss.
Early in the year, Holland was sitting 95, and his velocity took a sharp downwards turn in June, which is also when he started walking everyone. Those things are likely related. But both his velocity and his Zone% have bounced back in August, even as his performance has bottomed out.
In the middle of the summer, Holland was sitting 92 and missing the strike zone, but he wasn’t really getting hit that hard. Now he’s throwing 94 in the zone again, and he’s getting tattooed. Because this month, when Greg Holland throws strikes, he’s throwing meatballs.
Holland has thrown 141 pitches this month, and 10 of them have been centered and elevated “please hit me” pitches. Holland wasn’t going to succeed forever falling behind hitters and hoping for weak contact, but throwing middle-middle fastballs isn’t really an improvement.
As of last night, Bud Black was saying he was going to stick with Holland as his closer, hoping that the early-season version of their shut down closer comes back at some point soon. But while the results have just been poor this month, Holland this is now month three of Holland looking like a replacement level reliever; he has a 5.12 FIP/5.48 xFIP since June 1st.
Unfortunately for the Rockies, despite continually throwing a lot of resources at their bullpen, they don’t have any obvious alternatives. Jake McGee’s strikeout rate has also cratered since the end of May, and while he hasn’t gotten rocked like Holland has lately, he isn’t pitching like a relief ace in the second half either. Adam Ottavino has been terrible all year. Pat Neshek, acquired just before the trade deadline, is probably the Rockies best reliever right now, but not many MLB managers want to make a side-armer their closer.
So, once again, the Rockies bullpen is betraying them. Holland was responsible for a lot of their first-half success, but he’s now going on three months without being able to command his pitches well, and the Rockies probably shouldn’t count on seeing the dominant guy they had in May again. They can certainly hope he gets things straightened out, and relievers are fickle enough that he just might, but given how he’s pitched the last few months, I probably wouldn’t want to ask Holland to protect too many more leads down the stretch.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.