Back in December, the Yankees and Aroldis Chapman reunited on a five-year, $86 million contract. New York’s bullpen should be strong again with a final three of Chapman, Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard. But in the past two years, Joe Girardi’s pen has struggled beyond their main relievers, especially during innings 5-7, highlighting just how poorly young pitchers the Yankees have promoted from the minors have performed when given a chance.
In the past two years, reaching down for their own development projects has not gone well for the Yankees: Think of the Scranton shuttle guys such as Nicky Goody, Nick Rumbelow, Braden Pinder, Jacob Lindgren, Caleb Cotham, Jose Ramirez, Johnny Barbato, Danny Burawa and James Pazos. All of this brings me to 23-year old Jonathan Holder, a guy who won the MiLBY Award in the offseason as best reliever in the minors, however, the Kenny Powers look-alike is still mostly an unknown for Yankees fans.
Holder was an excellent collegiate closer at Mississippi State, and he finished his college career ranked fourth in NCAA history with 37 saves while breaking the Bulldogs career mark and the Southeastern Conference single-season record of 21. The Yankees selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 Draft, and New York decided to make Holder split time between starting and relieving during his first professional action with the Yankees Gulf Coast League affiliate and short-season Staten Island.
Things went well enough that Holder was converted to the rotation full time in his first full year in 2015. The transition was seamless and he posted a 2.52 ERA with 90 strikeouts over 118 innings in 21 starts across three levels, including Class A Advanced Tampa. As dominant as he was, Holder was told last spring that he would be returning to the bullpen, and his 2016 in the minors was almost too good to believe.
With nearly all of his innings thrown in Double-A or Triple-A, Holder finished the year with a 1.65 ERA, 101 strikeouts and 16 saves in 17 chances. He allowed just seven free passes all year and held batters to a .160 average. His minor league OBP allowed was .198, and his OPS allowed was .447. And, by the way, those 65.1 innings – those came in 42 appearances. Holder had 16 games in which he threw at least two innings. He was the Andrew Miller of the high minors.
Out of everybody who threw at least 50 innings in the minors, only Grant Dayton and Holder pulled off a K-BB% of 40%. Nobody else was above 35%. Holder generated 35 strikeouts without a single walk in Triple-A, and his final minor league game was the stuff of legend. He picked up a well-earned save by striking out 12 of the 13 batters he faced, including 11 in a row.
So what makes Holder so dominant? The 6,2, 235-pound right-hander is a finesse guy who relies on plus control and an expansive repertoire. He throws four different pitches and his four-seamer can jump into the mid-90s. He mixes in a quality slider and changeup, but it’s his sharp, looping curveball that’s his go-to pitch. According to Baseball Savant,
Holder’s average curve in the majors last year had a spin rate of 2927 RPM. That rated him in the 97th percentile, basically tied with Jeremy Hellickson and Lance McCullers. The average curve had a spin rate of 2462 RPM.
It’s hard to argue with New York’s decision to move Holder back to the pen knowing how successful he was, but could he be moved to the rotation this year because of the depth of his arsenal? He threw a total of 73.2 innings in 2016, so the Yankees could conceivably stretch him out to roughly 120 frames this season, maybe giving him a few spot starts in the Bronx if all goes well. But he seems to prefer being a reliever.
“I enjoy relieving,” Holder said at the Ohr-O’Keefe Our Love Affair with Baseball luncheon back in October. “It takes a different mentality to be a reliever. When you come in the game is on the line and the adrenaline is flowing. You have to stay calm and make your pitches.”
Because Holder was drafted out of college in 2014, he still had another year before he needed to be added to the 40-man roster. The Yankees debated whether or not it was worth it to call him up for the team’s playoff push, but ultimately his incredible performance earned him a September call-up. Holder allowed five earned runs and four walks in 8.1 innings of low-leverage work.
The most dominant pitcher in the minors wasn’t so dominant in the majors, and he hasn’t had a great spring so far. In 2 2/3 innings, Holder has allowed four earned runs and a homer. His ERA is an unsightly 13.50 during the early going, and he isn’t guaranteed a roster spot on Opening Day. But while touted prospects Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, James Kaprielian and Justus Sheffield are the talk of Yankees camp, Holder has the best chance to make the team.
There will be pitchers who ride the Scranton Shuttle this year. But if Holder rounds into form and keeps showing this kind of premium stuff, he won’t be one of them.