KANSAS CITY -- This was quite a year for Greg Holland: He made the All-Star team, led American League relievers in strikeouts and set a club record for most saves in a season.
Small wonder then that on Monday he was named winner of the 2013 Bruce Rice Award as the Royals Pitcher of the Year in a vote by the Kansas City chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
This season was just the second year that Holland has been the Royals' closer but the second straight year that he's won the award, named for a popular Kansas City sportscaster who passed away in 1978.
Holland posted 47 saves, two more than the previous club record shared by Dan Quisenberry (1983) and Jeff Montgomery (1993).
"The main thing for me is it means we won a lot of games," Holland said from his Asheville, N.C., home. "But it also affects expectations. As a competitor, I think everyone in that clubhouse sets the bar as high for themselves as they can so they can go out there and try to repeat those same things each year. If you're at your highest level, you're going to help your team win ballgames and that's where we all are at this point in our careers. We've got experience now and now it's just about winning games."
Holland is the first back-to-back winner of the Rice Award since starter Jeff Suppan in 2000-01 and only the second closer to win in successive years. Quisenberry won three straight from 1982-84, as well as in 1980. Other closers to win were Joakim Soria (2008-10), Mike MacDougal (2005), Montgomery (1998) and Mark Littell (1976). Steve Farr, the 1990 winner, pitched primarily in relief but not as a closer.
This year only two Major League closers had more saves than Holland -- Baltimore's Jim Johnson and Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel, each with 50.
Royals manager Ned Yost was asked during the season what makes a great closer.
"The bottom line is, are you going to save a game for us? And are you going to do it on a real consistent basis? The answer to that is yes, every time, with him," Yost said.
"When you've got a 98-mph fastball and you've got that slider that he's got, it can be overmatching."
Holland's 103 strikeouts not only led AL relievers and tied Jim York's 1971 club record but gave him an average of 13.84 strikeouts per nine innings, best all-time among AL pitchers with at least 60 innings. Holland worked 67 innings in 68 games.
Want more? His 1.21 ERA was the lowest ever by a Royals reliever, besting Montgomery's 1.37 in 1989. In his first three outings of the season, Holland gave up four earned runs (all in two games at Philadelphia), but his ERA the rest of the way was 0.69 (five earned runs in 65 innings).
Holland recalled talking to pitching coach Dave Eiland after the Philadelphia flameout.
"I'm trying to go out there and be someone I'm not. I need to go out there like it's a one-run game every time out and be unpredictable, don't be afraid to fall behind," Holland said.
"It got to the point where I was trying to throw strike one so much that I was kind of aiming the ball a lot. I'm not very successful when I'm doing that, so I had to realize what my strengths were the year before and I had to replicate those things as much as I could. I kind of got back to being myself. There was nothing mechanically wrong, it was more of a mindset thing."
Holland credited the Royals' designated hitter, Billy Butler, with a lot of guidance in facing opposing hitters this year.
"He does his homework to the point where he knows what pitchers' tendencies are, and your best hitter, the guy that can really hurt you in the middle of an order, knows what you like to do so you can't really get into patterns," Holland said. "You've got to mix it up. To be able to do that, you've got to get better with locating not just one pitch but two and three pitches, depending on your role with the team."
Holland, drafted out of Western Carolina University in the 10th round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, advanced rapidly in the Kansas City system but seemed to stall at the big league level in 2010 because of his control lapses. However, that winter he pitched in Venezuela and made a tremendous improvement.
"I liked his makeup, loved his stuff, his command was all over the place," Yost recalled of Holland's earlier years. "He went to winter ball, closed out there, came back a totally different guy. His stuff was great, his competitiveness on the mound was great, the command was there."
Holland remembered the turnaround well.
"I'm glad because the season before that didn't go so well," he said.
But in 2011, Holland had a 1.80 ERA, a 5-1 record and four saves in a setup role. When Soria had to have elbow surgery in the spring of 2012, Jonathan Broxton took over the closer's job, but when Broxton was traded to the Reds at midseason, Holland got his shot. He hasn't slowed down since.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com.