As the slow churn of spring training started to tick by in February, when the names of days became irrelevant because every day is the same, Carlos Gonzalez sidled next to a new teammate, a man he had never met. This name, he knew.
Greg Holland’s reputation draws a lot of water.
“You know what? You’re gonna like this team,” Gonzalez told Holland. “You’re gonna have a lot of opportunities to be beastly.”
“You think that’s gonna be true?” Holland said.
“Just wait and watch,” Gonzalez replied.
Holland didn’t wait long. Through two astonishing months, the first-place Rockies are winning in ways they rarely have in their 25-year history, pitching like a team that does not play at 5,280 feet above sea level. It’s unfolding back-to-front, from the end of a bullpen commanded by Holland down to a rookie-filled rotation.
Holland, a 31-year-old veteran reliever, an offseason pickup off baseball’s discard pile, has quickly pitched himself back among the game’s elite closers.
“We have the best closer in the game right now,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously, it’s been the best offseason move so far.”
Entering weekend play, Holland had allowed just two runs in 18⅔ innings, with an 0.96 ERA. He started a perfect 19-for-19 in save situations, the best mark in baseball, six more than the nearest relievers, Cleveland’s Cody Allen and Houston’s Ken Giles.
And with an incentive-filled contract and an upside that has completely flipped the Rockies’ fortunes, Holland has been the steal of winter’s hot stove league, far exceeding expectations.
“I guess when you look at 19-for-19 in saves, you could say that,” Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said. “I mean, who expects that? I don’t think his talent exceeded our expectations. But after a year off and after surgery, you would expect some rust and there really hasn’t been any.”
The annual winter free-agent chase turned into a rush for elite late-inning relievers, with a surplus of big-name closers. Money flooded to Aroldis Chapman (the Yankees gave him $86 million), Kenley Jansen (Dodgers, $80 million), Mark Melancon (Giants, $62 million) and Brett Cecil (Cardinals, $30.5 million).
Holland, whose 2015 season ended early with Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, took 18 months to recover. By the time he returned, teams were wary of his health. He was the best reliever in baseball in 2013-14, when he posted ERAs of 1.21 and 1.44 ERAs with the Royals.
Several teams, including the Giants and Dodgers, wanted to sign Holland. The Nationals, now desperate for late-inning relief help, wanted him too. But none of them could guarantee a closer’s role. The worry about his arm was a limiting factor.
“A lot of people in this game play with a chip on their shoulder,” Holland said. “I’m no different. I just want to be better and better each time out. I knew I was healthy. If other teams didn’t necessarily believe that or they were apprehensive, that’s their decision.”
The Rockies, though, had a “gut feeling about it,” manager Bud Black said. They signed Holland to a guaranteed deal of $7 million. If Holland stays healthy and pitches well, he could earn as much as $14 million, with games-finished and appearance clauses. And if he pitches in 50 games, or finishes 30, a mutual player option kicks in for 2018 at $15 million.
He is well on his way to reaching those benchmarks. For now, his addition is playing out in victories. Heading into the weekend Colorado’s bullpen had a 4.14 ERA, ranking 17th in baseball, a noticeable spike from recent seasons when the Rockies’ ‘pen was the worst in the league. “In the past, we blew a lot of games at the end,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s a big boost to know that a pitcher of that quality and reliability is coming in,” Black said. “Over time, when you win games after you have leads, it just gives the group a great deal of confidence. It sets up the guys in front of him to have that same level of confidence.”
The Rockies finished 12 games below .500 last season, in third place in the National League West. And that was an improvement. They had finished last or second-to-last in their division in each of the five prior seasons. And while they added first baseman/left fielder Ian Desmond on a $70 million deal, as well as utility man Alexi Amarista and left-handed set-up reliever Mike Dunn, no offseason addition has been more important than Holland.
Behind, or in front of, their new shutdown closer, the Rockies were 13 games above .500 before a weekend series against the Cardinals, the best record in the National League.
Gonzalez faced Holland twice in his career before they wore the same uniform. When he walked up to Holland on that February morning in Arizona, he knew Holland threw with an elite arm.
“Everybody, including me, was like, I can’t wait to get to see how this guy looks. Because it was a big concern,” Gonzalez said. “But when he’s healthy, he’s showing what kind of player he is. He’s doing something that this team really needed.”
The rush for free-agent relief pitchers before this season led to some of the most expensive hot -stove deals. The Rockies, though, added Greg Holland on an under-the-radar deal. How he stacks up against the big-money deals by ERA through nearly two months.
|Note: Salary in millions; stats before weekend games.|
Return to form
Colorado closer Greg Holland started the season a baseball-best 19-for-19 in save situations. And his numbers are on track to match his best seasons in Kansas City, when the right-hander was among the best closers in the game.
Season … Team … Svs … G … IP … K/9 … HR/9 … GB% … ERA
2010 … Royals … 0 … 15 … 18.2 … 11.1 … 1.45 … 34.5 … 6.75
2011 … Royals … 4 … 46 … 60.0 … 11.1 … 0.45 … 44.9 … 1.80
2012 … Royals … 16 … 67 … 67.0 … 12.2 … 0.27 … 45.3 … 2.96
2013 … Royals … 47 … 68 … 67.0 … 13.8 … 0.40 … 39.4 … 1.21
2014 … Royals … 46 … 65 … 62.1 … 13.0 … 0.43 … 48.1 … 1.44
2015 … Royals … 32 … 48 … 44.2 … 9.87 … 0.40 … 49.1 … 3.83
2016 … Injured
2017 … Rockies … 19 … 20 … 18.2 … 12.5 .. 0.00 … 52.8 … 0.96
Note: Saves; games; innings pitched; strikeouts and home runs per nine innings; groundball percentage. Stats before Friday’s games.