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Derek Holland and Home Runs | February
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PhotobucketEntering spring training, the Rangers will be looking for someone to step forward and claim a rotation spot the way C.J. Wilson did last year. Wilson returns in 2011 as a leader in the rotation along with Colby Lewis. The Rangers hope winter acquisition Brandon Webb can be healthy enough to fill a third spot and Tommy Hunter is penciled in as the number four. Scott Feldman would be a candidate for the 5th spot, but will probably not be ready to start the year after offseason surgery. We have all heard that Texas intends to stretch Neftali Feliz out this spring and see if he is ready to move into the rotation, but I think we all (and I include Nolan Ryan in ‘we’) expect Feliz to return to the bullpen as the closer. Like Feliz, Alexi Ogando will work as a starter this spring, but he too looks more likely to be back in the bullpen. That leaves the trio of young lefties (Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman and Matt Harrison) as producing the likely winner of the final spot in the rotation with another probably slated to fill the long-man role in the bullpen.

Nolan Ryan has openly praised Kirkman and gone on record to predict he will have an impact on the team in 2011. A couple of weeks ago, we learned a little more about why as Ryan discussed Kirkman and Holland on the Ticket radio station in Dallas. For Ryan, it basically comes down to Holland’s propensity to leave the ball up and surrender a home run (career 1.5 HR/9) and Kirkman’s ability to keep the ball in the park. It was only 16 big league innings, but Kirkman allowed no home runs with the Rangers and as a minor leaguer allowed a career 0.5 HR/9. Outside of the home runs, there is a lot to like about Holland’s peripherals (7.4 K/9 and 2.3 K/BB). Let’s take a closer look at Holland’s home runs allowed.

In Holland’s two seasons, he has allowed 32 home runs in 195.2 innings pitched. That is a 1.47 HR/9 rate, markedly higher than the league average of roughly 1.0 HR/9. It gets even a little worse when you break it down to starting versus relieving. As a starter, he has allowed 1.59 HR/9 as compared to 0.84 HR/9 as a reliever. The one bit of good news here is that his overall home run numbers in 2010 were in line with league average at 0.94 HR/9 (although still a little higher as a starter 1.16 HR/9). His 2009 numbers really drive the overall total as his 26 home runs in 138.1 inning pitched that year were good (err bad) for a 1.69 HR/9. But the question is whether something unique to Holland (like pitching high in the zone) led to the higher home run numbers.

In terms of vertical location (high or low) there appears to be something to the theory that high pitches drive Holland’s home runs allowed. If you split thePhotobucket strike zone into top half and bottom half, exactly half of Holland’s 32 home runs came from the top and half from the bottom. This is in line with league wide totals, which see 50.6% from the top half and the remaining 49.4% from the bottom half. But, we more commonly see the strike zone split into thirds. This is where the issue becomes more visible (see strike zone chart at right). Of Holland’s home runs, 26 of the 32 (81.25%) were in the middle or top of the strike zone and only 6 of the 32 (18.75%) were from the bottom third of the strike zone (or lower). This is more lopsided than the league average which sees 72.9% in the top two thirds and 27.1% in the bottom third. Not only do fewer of Holland’s home runs allowed come from the bottom third, but 12 of his home runs (37.5%) came from the top third of the zone. In 2010, only about 27.4% of all big league home runs come from the top third.

So hitters have clearly been able to take advantage of pitches Holland leaves up in the zone, but does he tend to throw there more often than other pitchers? The numbers point to yes. Of all Holland’s pitches, 36.7% are in the top third of the zone or higher that compares to roughly 30% for the major league average. For another comparison, look at teammate C.J. Wilson who sat at 26% in 2010. And what C.J. Wilson does really well is pound the bottom third of the strike zone, hitting the bottom third or lower 46.5% of the time compared to 44% of the time for the league average. Holland only gets to the bottom third or lower 36.5% of the time. So, is it as simple for Holland as just being more consistent down in the zone? Perhaps, but maybe not.

The other interesting nugget that came out of this study is the type of pitches that were hit for home runs. The obvious thought is that Holland is leaving his fastball up in the zone and it is getting pounded, but the reality is slightly different.

Derek HollandAll PitchesHRs
Fastball 67.6% 56.3%
Slider 14.9% 18.8%
Changeup 11.1% 25.0%
Curveball 6.4% 0.0%

In short, Holland’s secondary pitches are not as good, at least in terms of limiting home runs, as his fastball. His changeup is more than twice as likely to be hit out of the park than his fastball and while not as dramatic, his slider is also more likely to be hit for a home run than his fastball. Now it’s possible that there are some pitch identification errors by PitchF/X (I am using the Gameday classification) as some offspeed pitches may get misidentified, but in any case, Holland’s secondary pitches have been more likely to be hit for home runs than his fastball. The counterintuitive part about this is that in 2010 with his lower home run rate, he was actually throwing more offspeed pitches. I read this as good news, in that it is an indication that his offspeed stuff was being taken deep less often and/or the offspeed pitches were helping the effectiveness of his fastball.

As spring training games begin late this month and into March there are basically two things the Rangers and we as Ranger fans need to see out Holland if he is going to hold a spot in the rotation. First, finding the lower third of the zone more consistently. Pitches left up in the zone lead to high slugging percentages allowed. Second, he needs to demonstrate consistency with his secondary pitches or maybe start using another pitch (i.e. the Mike Maddux cutter). If he has improved his secondary pitches over the offseason and can consistently find the bottom third of the strike zone, then he can help this team in the rotation. He clearly has the strikeout ability to be an outstanding pitcher for Texas, but he can't do it with just the fastball. If that's his only plus pitch, then he will be heading back to Triple-A or into the long relief role for this team.

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