PITTSBURGH -- When the D-backs signed Greg Holland to a one year, $3.25 million contract on Jan. 31, there were questions about whether the team would see the version that struggled consistently with the Cardinals to begin 2018 or the one that shut down batters with the Nationals to end it.
So far, Holland has well outpaced the former and has arguably been even better than he was during his turnaround season with Washington. He owns a perfect ERA through his first eight outings, including five saves, and he’s allowed just two hits. So it’s little wonder why for D-backs manager Torey Lovullo, there were no doubts coming in about his new closer.
“We knew at the end of the year last year in Washington, he was throwing the ball extremely well,” Lovullo said, “We thought that would be the trend for us, and it has been.”
What’s been working? Holland admits it’s hard to say, but judging by the numbers, it seems to be tied to his slider. After allowing hard contact at a 28 percent clip on the offering last season, he has yet to allow a hard knock off it, per Statcast, and 11 of his 13 strikeouts this year have come on the pitch.
Lovullo saw Holland a number of times in his stints coaching in the American League, with the Indians and Red Sox, and he saw the devastation his slider could wreak.
“I’ve just known him from the time he was in Kansas City, from the opposing dugout, as somebody who can change shapes of that pitch,” Lovullo said. “He can land it, he can spike it, he’s just very gifted with that feel.”
Yes, Holland’s velocity has dipped over time, especially on his fastball. But for Lovullo’s part, he “couldn’t care less about the 96 [mph pitches].”
“The velo and location that he’s throwing for us today has been exceptional,” Lovullo said. “It’s the shape of his secondary stuff. It’s the location of his fastball. That’s helped that out.”
“I know I don’t have the same stuff I used to have,” Holland admitted Thursday on MLB Central, “but I’ve gotten a lot better at making pitches, learning hitters and things of that nature. I still feel like I can be really successful in different ways.”
Holland's early tenure with the D-backs is an about-face from his start last season. He produced a 7.92 ERA in just 25 innings for the Cards, who paid him $14 million for a one-year deal before cutting him on Aug. 1.
“I hate the way I pitched in St. Louis,” Holland said. “It’s one of those things where I really wanted to prove why they paid me, and for the first time in a long time, I started taking the game home with me, and it kind of spiraled out of control.”
Holland wasn’t gone for long. The Nats picked him up six days later, but the dismissal was enough to send a strong message to the 33-year-old closer.
“I think that once I got to Washington, I kind of got to wipe the slate clean,” Holland said. “A few days at home without a job kind of gave me some perspective, and I came back, and I was just suddenly the same guy I’d been before.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed for Holland is his mindset. He’s not afraid to attack hitters, even if it ends up somewhere in the outfield. That same swagger followed Holland to Washington, where he put up a 0.84 ERA over 21 1/3 frames.
“I try to convey this to everyone who pitches when I can: When you step on the mound, you’ve got to think you’re the best out there, and that you’re the best option,” Holland said.
Holland has certainly become just that for the D-backs. His K rate in the early going and his run prevention so far has him on track to pitch more like his 2017 campaign, when he led the National League with 41 saves for Colorado.
“There’s a lot of comfort in knowing that he’s sitting there on the back end,” Lovullo said. “As a manager, you build it backwards. And when you get a one-run lead, you start to execute your game plans and your thoughts. And it’s a real good feeling knowing he’s back there, waiting for that ninth inning.
“He hasn’t let us down yet.”