Greg Holland is arriving just in time. The Cardinals need him. The restlessness is there for many reasons, much of it psychological.
There’s a lot more to Holland’s potential value to the 2018 Cardinals than the responsibility of securing ninth-inning leads to put precious victories in the bank. We’ll get to this in a bit, but he’s been excellent at handling danger and pressure and transporting those wins to the vault since 2011. But if Holland is sharp and right and ready to roll physically — and that’s a big question considering that he didn’t have a spring training — his impact should strengthen this team in multiple ways.
Let’s cite those ways:
1-As traditional closers go, Holland has been very good at this. Even great at this. Before his career with Kansas City was damaged by elbow issues and the surgery that put him out for the entire 2016 season, he had four special years for the Royals. From 2011 through 2014, Holland’s 91.1 save percentage ranked second in the majors. And he struck out batters at the remarkable rate of 35 percent. After pitching with pain in 2015 and missing 2016, Holland returned on a one-year deal with Colorado last season and saved 41 games in 45 opportunities, matching the 91.1% save rate from earlier in his career. And he maintained a vigorous strikeout rate, 30 percent. Holland’s fastball has lost some heat, but his nasty slider still bites hard. One warning: Holland has a high walk rate.
2-Just by being here, Holland will be a calming, settling presence for manager Mike Matheny. Without a fixed closer in place, Matheny’s stress level goes way up. It becomes an excruciating challenge for Matheny to figure out what to do in the sixth, seven, and eighth innings because he’s so worried about who will close if there’s a save oppo in the ninth. So Matheny has held certain relievers back early on, just in case he needed them in the ninth. And by doing it that way, Matheny kept giving the ball to Matt Bowman, who already is tied for second in the NL for most relief appearances (six). He’s already thrown 101 pitches. When an anxious Matheny is experiencing the baseball equivalent of a motor tic, Bowman is his reflex source of comfort. Now that Holland is here, Matheny hopefully can return to normalcy instead of calling the bullpen to have Bowman warm up every 19 seconds. (Intentional exaggeration.)
3-With Holland anchoring the ninth, Matheny can set up his reliever grid, without having to use too much imagination to cover the variables. Matheny likes to have all of the relievers slotted for specific roles, and when they can’t be dropped into those customary spots, he reminds me of an older relative who gets very uncomfortable if his sock drawer isn’t arranged just right, according to the preconceived layout. Matheny can now simplify this by declaring that this guy is his sixth inning guy, this man over there is his seventh-inning man, that dude is his eighth-inning dude, and this lefty is there to pitch to left handed hitters. So much easier to connect the dots, paint by numbers, etc.
4- Hey, what about the Mike Maddux Effect? I will answer your question with a question: What Maddux Effect? The new pitching coach — I’m sorry, the new pitching “coordinator” — has probably learned a few things already. One being this: Matheny is going to do it the Matheny way, because Matheny of course knows best. But if there will be an actual Maddux Effect, and I predict that there will be, at least to an extent, then this is the time. Holland’s installation removes the clutter of ninth-inning options, ninth-inning confusion, and having to try out different arms as potential closers.
If there is a such thing as a Maddux Effect, it soon will materialize in a couple of ways:
A) Fast-forwarding the best setup reliever or relievers into the sixth inning if the situation is loaded with risk and could determine the outcome. No more opting for the lesser reliever in a high-leverage situation just because it’s a little earlier in the game. This is how Matheny prefers it and now it’s up to Maddux to change it.
B) If Maddux has influence, the Cardinals will have plenty of solid or good relievers to send after hitters before it’s Holland Time. There is simply no reason to continue overworking and risk and abusing the arms of two or three security-blanket relievers that Matheny trusts … even if there is no real reason to trust them more than other relievers who are covered with dust through inactivity. If the manager wants an eight-man bullpen, then use all eight relievers instead of being irrational and wearing down favorite-son relievers until they break. Alert: The very busy Dominic Leone, who averaged 94.5 mph in his fastball with Toronto last season, is averaging 93 mph with the fastball so far in 2018. Keep an eye on that one.
If Maddux does nothing to stop this insanity, then I have absolutely no idea why he’s here.
C) More focus and attention to highly detailed matchup numbers. Stop being welded to the conventional thinking just because some geezer manager did it in 1984. Take advantage of the information age instead of doing the predictable “Oh, I have to go LH pitcher vs. LH batter here” which will cover your back side, but isn’t the smart play. Dig deeper. Here’s an example, from a real stat. Worried about Milwaukee’s LH batter, Travis Shaw? The automatic thought is to bring in LHP Tyler Lyons. But if you do that, then you’ll be out of LH relievers. But there’s no reason to call Lyons. Do you have a RH reliever who has a good breaking ball, and/or changeup? That’s the one. Shaw is flailing at breaking pitches, offspeed pitches, thrown by RHP early this season. He literally has not hit one ball hard when a RH throws him something other than a fastball. In 20 at-bats against RH pitchers that ended on a pitch other than a fastball, Shaw is 1 for 20 with nine strikeouts. So hold on to Lyons. Save him for another confrontation.
5-Finally, the Cardinal bullpen hasn’t been good so far. It is replacement-level caliber in Wins Above Replacement. It has the worst Win Probability Added (minus 0.85) among the 30 MLB bullpens. It has the third-lowest swing-and-miss rate. Even with Jordan Hicks missing bats, there is too much contact. The Cards are losing the early-season battle of the bullpens, having been outscored 12-2 by opponents in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
Holland enables Matheny and Maddux to set up a new system, putting each reliever in a role that will enhance his chance for success and give the Cardinals a better crack at winning.
The depth is here. Even with LHP Ryan Sherriff and Brett Cecil on the DL, the Cardinals have a long list of RH relievers available.
Holland, Bud Norris, Hicks, Leone, Bowman, John Brebbia, Sam Tuivailala, Mike Mayers, and possibly John Gant later on. (Alex Reyes is being prepared to start, but could end up in the end up in the bullpen as a “bridge” reliever who would work the a couple of middle innings twice a week. RH Luke Gregerson is on the DL, but is getting closer to a return.
And Lyons is the resident lefty.
The St. Louis bullpen has the potential to be outstanding … but only if the manager and the pitching coordinator get a helluva lot smarter about deploying their relievers. Holland’s return is essential, for he gives Matheny and Maddux an opportunity to reset, start anew, and optimize their bullpen’s potential for success.
Thanks for reading …