Today at Yankee Stadium was a microcosm of Derek Holland’s season and, perhaps to a larger degree, a perfect representation of his career as a whole up to this point. Through the first five innings, he allowed just one hit and no walks, facing only one batter above the minimum in that span. The Rangers offense staked him to a four-run lead, and it all but appeared that Holland was going to breeze his way unto helping Texas avoid an egregious 4-game sweep to the Yankees.
All of a sudden, the 6th inning happened, and everything changed.
The inning led off with Ichiro reaching on an infield single. Still, no harm no foul. After Chris Steward grounded out, advancing Suzuki to 2nd, Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher followed with successive RBI singles, cutting the Yankees deficit in half. Holland’s seamless control over the first 5 innings was starting to evaporate, and Rangers fans across the country began to hold their collective breath, as this was the Derek Holland we’ve regrettably come to expect. After Mark Teixeira struck out swinging on a diving 3-2 curveball in the dirt, Holland failed to record another out. Andruw Jones hit a game-tying two-run homer to left, and the newly-acquired Casey McGehee reached on an error to the out-of-place Mike Olt playing right field. That was it. Derek Holland’s day was done.
That run eventually scored on a green-light 3-0 single off the bat of Russell Martin, and Holland’s line was closed. 5.2 innings, 5 runs on 5 hits, no walks and 3 strikeouts. I so badly want to give him the benefit of the doubt every time he goes out, always wishing he’d finally turn the corner and transmogrify into the pitcher we’ve all expected him to become, but more and more it seems like his remarkable Game 4 start in last year’s World Series was an aberration, and not the true talent of the pitcher.
Let’s take a look at the numbers, and see just how much my perception matches up with the reality we’re dealing with.
For you traditional stat-keepers, thus far into the year Holland has amassed a 7-6 record with an ERA of 4.92. His strikeout numbers (7.41/9IP) and walk ratio (2.89/9IP) are relatively pedestrian; nothing special, but not terrible by any means. He sports an xFIP of 4.23 and SIERA of 4.05, indicating he’s better than how’s he’s pitched so far, but those peripherals are still very average on a league-wide scale. For a pitcher fresh off receiving a team-friendly 5-year/$28.5M contract extension this most recent offseason, it was expected he would take the next step into the more exclusive air of becoming a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. After all, this is what we’ve been preached by the media: He has the ceiling of a #2 starter. I don’t think any of us expected him to pitch closer to a #4. He’s supposed to be better than that.
And this may be the greatest predicament Rangers fans deal with when assessing just how good Derek Holland really is. We fight the battle between our high expectations and a reality we aren’t yet willing to accept. Last year his ERA was a full run lower (3.95), and he possessed an xFIP (3.76) and SIERA (3.86) that showed he was actually better than that, ultimately finishing in the top-third in all of baseball in WAR for pitchers at 3.6. Right now, he’s yet to produce even 1.0 win above a replacement level player, making it feel as if the pitcher who was tied for 2nd in baseball with 4 shutouts last year is simply gone altogether.
The most troubling aspect of this, a 2012 season that may very well go down as a lost year for Holland, is that his “stuff” doesn’t appear as if it’s gone anywhere. If we discount the month or so where he succumbed to a stomach virus and saw his velocity dip down into the upper-80’s/low-90’s territory, he’s mostly been the same pitcher as he was last year. He can still pump it up into the mid-90’s, and still hones a reliable curveball, change-up mix which helps complement his plus fastball. His issue has been locating. For how gorgeous it is to watch him while he’s in a groove, it’s just as frustrating when he’s throwing meatballs over the heart of the plate, which have already led him to allowing an uncharacteristic 22 home runs. A lot of people want to blame his lack of success on being unfocused, or too much of a goofball, but that’s nonsense. He cares about winning just as much as the other 24 guys on the roster, and he’s already proven himself on the biggest baseball stage on the planet. He’s a gamer. However, it is interesting that the fan base, including myself, look at Holland as if he’s still a young player. Maybe it’s the promise he’s teased us with; maybe it’s the facial hair. I don’t know. But he’s due to turn 26 while the Rangers will be in the postseason. We aren’t going to be able to look at him this way forever.
One thing is true: The only pitcher with more upside in the starting rotation is Yu Darvish. I still believe in my heart of hearts that this is all some stupid phase that Derek Holland is in. That maybe, possibly, probably, he’s got a magic bag of tricks up his sleeve and that he’s only teasing us before another stupendous postseason performance or two.
Right now, the Dutch Oven is cold. Ice cold. But I still can’t convince myself that he doesn’t have some fire left in the tank.