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If Matheny Is Obsessed With Holland, There’s Always Amsterdam

The headline was written in jest.

Relax.

Mike Matheny wanted Greg Holland to be his closer.

No problem with that.

Matheny likes to have an established closer.

Most managers (if not all) want the guy who has the big-save count next to his name.

It gives them a feeling of security. A dependable closer is good for the mental health of the entire team. But a bad closer is a toxic spill. A shaky, burned-out, ineffective closer can make imminent victories dissolve into defeat, destroy promising seasons, and unnerve his manager and team.

The Cardinals had multiple closer candidates nearing the end of spring training, but THE CLOSER hadn’t emerged. So Matheny lobbied for Holland, an unadopted free agent waiting for an acceptable contract offer to come his way.

Gotta have Holland as the closer.

Gotta go get him.

Cardinals management doesn’t throw money around lightly, and it’s not like chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., baseball president John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch gave Holland a one-year deal for $14 million just to hush Matheny and prevent an anxiety attack. If DeWitt wants peace and quiet, he can retreat to his lakefront retreat in Michigan.

The Cardinals purchased a closer for Matheny, but management must have thought it made sense This isn’t a frivolous front office. And I thought it was fine to bring Holland in on a one-year deal that limited the potential liability of signing him.

What I  didn’t know  at he time, however, was the remarkably short-sighted, senseless plan to speed-rush Holland onto the big-league roster. Just a peculiar, avoidable blunder that no smart organization, pitcher or manager should make. More on that later.

There were risks attached to Holland; that’s why no one hired him until March 29. And this is why he couldn’t land a multiyear deal on the open market.

I wouldn’t expect Matheny to read the reports from the Cardinals analytics department on Holland’s profile.  That isn’t Matheny’s thing.  The Beloved Leader of Men doesn’t want to go deep diving on all this nerdy analytics stuff.  No, sir. Bow your neck, and be tough!

You have to understand the way Matheny thinks, and then it all makes sense. The only number Matheny needed to see was “41.” That was Holland’s league-leading saves total for Colorado last season.

Perfect, 41 saves.

Gotta get him. Holland gotta be the closer.

Never mind Holland’s declining four-seam fastball, and the concern over his escalating walk rate. Both were warning signs. Didn’t matter …. this was everything:  41,   41, 41, 41, 41, 41, 41.

The beginning and the end of the Matheny analysis.

So of course Matheny rushed Holland into the closer’s role on Holland’s first day on the 25-man roster, after only two brief appearances for the Cardinals Class A team. Back to what I mentioned earlier: I still cannot believe that Cards management agreed to let Holland join the big-league team without having the proper time to get ready.  I can’t believe Holland would be so impatient, he’d risk hurting his 2019 contract value by leaping crazily into season to take on major-league hitters with real games on the line when he wasn’t capable of pitching at anything close to full capacity.

And Matheny? Holland’s readiness was of no concern … 41, 41, 41, 41, 41 … Holland is the closer.

Holland’s first night as a closer was a disaster. He walking a bunch of Brewers and got pulled, and the Cardinals lost in extra innings. Matheny backed off, and placed Holland away from the flames for a while. But of course Matheny couldn’t wait to usher Holland into the closer spot as soon as the reliever strung together a few appearances that didn’t result in an embarrassing sequence of “Ball Four” calls by the home-plate umpire.

In one of the most predictable moments of the season, Matheny burned his best reliever, Bud Norris, in the 8th inning Friday night in Pittsburgh. The Cardinals were trying to smuggle a 5-2 lead into the visitor’s clubhouse for a series-opening win at PNC Park, and Norris did his part by pitching a scoreless inning.

Matheny brought his man Holland in to close it out.

And he summoned Holland to close it out even though ol’ 41 would be pitching on consecutive days for the first time this season after not having the opportunity to build up his arm in spring training.

For Holland, it was another episode of pitching on roller skates. His velocity was intact, even up a bit. So that was a positive indicator. But the results, not so much. He faced four Pirates and didn’t get an out. In 17 pitches, Holland was taken down for three hits, three runs, two earned runs. Sure, he was let down by his defense in the inning. But let’s not be stupid here, OK? Holland’s pitches were flat. The Pirates swung at five Holland sliders — and had only one swing-and-miss. It’s his best pitch, and his s only plus pitch.

Holland was on fire, Matheny’s hair was on fire, the bullpen was heating up (too late of course) and the Cardinals’ lead was turning to ash. Rarely proactive, and almost always reactive, Matheny stood and watched Holland go up in smoke. The manager had to hustle in three relievers just to survive the ninth and have a chance to prevail in extra innings. The Pirates won 6-5 in 11, bagging the winning run against rookie Jordan Hicks.

I don’t understand Matheny’s obsession with getting Holland glued to the closer’s role, whether Holland is ready or not.  But he had no spring training. He wasn’t sharp. His stuff isn’t lively and can’t be entrusted to in high-leverage scenarios right now.   Holland has faced 12 batters in high-leverage situations,  walking five and allowing two hits with a 16.20 ERA. Other than to sound air sirens, I don’t know how to make Matheny more aware of the danger here.

If, as Matheny has said, this is Holland’s “spring-training phase,” then why must Holland get to have his spring-training tuneups in the ninth inning against a division rival when the Cardinals need to seal a win? Remember when winning was the top priority around here?

What in the world is the reason for Matheny’s urgency to make Holland the closer?

1. The Cardinals don’t owe Holland anything except his $14 million salary. Period. End of discussion. It’s up to Holland to make the best of this opportunity and establish value for his next contract. And if he’s incapable of closing, sorry, but that’s his problem. It’s ridiculous for the Cardinals to force it at the expense of the rest of the team, and at the cost of weakening their position in the NL Central standings. Holland has been a Cardinal for 15 minutes, OK? He hasn’t built equity here. And there are 24 other players trying to win.

2. Bud Norris is kicking backsides as the closer. So why not just allow the man to continue kicking ass until he isn’t? Maybe this ass-kicking will change, and of course there’s always the risk of injury, especially with Matheny’s tendency to abuse the arms of certain relievers. But Norris has been great so far. If you’re a saves counter, he’s 5 for 5. His 38.5 percent strikeout rate ranks 10th among NL relievers. His strikeout-walk ratio — a sensational 10.0, meaning 10 strikeouts for every walk — is No. 3 in the NL. His standard ERA (2.03) is very good, and his fielding independent ERA (1.81) is 10th among NL relievers with at least 13 innings pitched. Matheny could have tried Holland in the 8th on Friday, knowing (well, maybe not) that if Holland went on tilt, the manager would still have Norris waiting to go in case of emergency. Instead, the manager didn’t have his top reliever around to stop the bleeding. (By the way, update: I was NOT advocating a two-inning save for Norris. My point: I prefer to have him available.)

3. If this is about Matheny’s push to sign Holland and the manager shoe-horning Holland into the closer role to justify coveting the RH reliever  … that’s a poor reason that does nothing to advance the cause of winning or maximizing the probability of success.

What’s wrong with Holland? The numbers are troubling. The 7.36 ERA with eight walks and seven strikeouts in 7.1 innings are there on the surface for all to see. But when you go underneath the standard stats and scrub the nitty-gritty, it’s worse.

Here’s what I mean, and all numbers are from STATS LLC or FanGraphs.

* Holland’s four-seam fastball, 93.4 mph last year, is firing at 92.8 mph this season. And hitters are mashing it for a .538 slugging percentage. The fastball lost steam last season when hitters beat up on it for a .509 slug.

* Last season Holland had an overall whiff rate of 19.4 percent on the four-seam, and a whiff rate of 15.6 percent when throwing the four-seam for a strike. This year the overall whiff rate for the fastball is 7.1 percent, and in the zone it’s 9.1 percent.

* Last season hitters chased the four-seam out of the strike zone 40%  of the time; so far this season that’s down to 15.4 percent.

* Holland had a strike rate of 62 percent with the four-seam last season; it’s 53.5% this year.

* The ground-ball rate on the four-seam was 40% last year; it’s 28.6% this season.

Now, let’s move onto the famous Holland slider that made him one of the most fearsome relievers in baseball during his glory days with Kansas City….

* Last season hitters batted .137 with a .226 slugging percentage vs. the Holland slider. This year, they’re hitting the pitch for a .375 average and .438 slug.

* Holland’s overall whiff rate on the slider was 47.4%  in 2017; that’s fallen to 34.4% early in 2018.

* Holland’s whiff rate in the strike zone with the slider was 27.2%  last season and is 22.2% this year.

* The hitters’ chase rate on the slider was 44% in 2017; it’s 37%  now.

* Ground ball rate on the slider: 44%  last season; 20% this season.

Holland’s 20.5 percent walk rate is the sixth-worst in the majors among qualifying relievers and well above the league average of 9.4 percent. He’s walked 8 of 32 batters in NL Central games, or 25%. Last season in Colorado Holland’s swing-and-miss rate of 35.8 percent was slightly above his career standard. Early this season that swing-and-miss percentage is only 24.2 percent.

Holland may come around. But he can’t be sent to the minors for conditioning unless he approves the assignment, or unless he’s injured and goes down to rehab. But until Holland rounds into form (if he does), Matheny needs to find ways to get him some work without jeopardizing wins. The shame is, the Cardinals have better relievers pitching in the minors right now, as Holland occupies a big-league roster spot. But wasting $14 million is a helluva lot better than wasting a chance to win games and return to the postseason for the first time since 2015.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie

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