The Greg Holland signing was a disaster for the St. Louis Cardinals, to put it lightly. However, this should not be seen as something to deter you from signing closers, but a lesson to be learned about a pitcher’s rhythm.
From the beginning, the circumstances around Greg Holland were abnormal. It was unheard of for a closer with a career ERA under 3 and multiple plus pitches stay unsigned until Opening Day. But that’s what happened with Holland when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him in 2018.
The Tommy John surgery that he had in 2015 was long past, and Holland had come off another All-Star season in Colorado. He managed a 3.61 ERA with Coors Field as his home turf, which is considered impressive by many.
There was only one truly massive red flag, and even that was something that any team would have took a risk on in that moment. While his 3.61 ERA was solid by most people’s measurements, Holland actually finished the first half of the season with a stellar 1.62 ERA, and was continuing to cruise as one of the best closers in the league.
Then came the month of August.
Holland took a massive tailspin in August, giving up 14 runs and 14 hits in just 9.1 innings in the month. If you take August out of the equation, Holland’s 2017 ERA was just 1.69.
In many cases, this can be a huge red flag that teams will consider a dealbreaker. However, the upside that Holland demonstrated in the toughest pitcher’s park in the league and through his general consistency before his surgery, the St. Louis Cardinals were willing to overlook it.
On top of that, Holland had seemingly recovered in September. He allowed just 2 runs in 9.2 innings after August. This wasn’t stellar, but signs pointed towards Holland having recovered from whatever hampered his performance.
Was it this rough August that caused Holland to remain a free agent for so long? It’s hard to say, but the cost that Holland’s talent commanded combined with a rough showing so late in the year caused teams to hold back.
Enter the St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2018 offseason with clear cut goals in mind, one of which was to acquire a closer. The team hadn’t gone after a closer in free agency in a few years, content with the performances of home grown talents Trevor Rosenthal and Jason Motte.
The Cardinals were never huge buyers of relief pitching either. The last player the St. Louis Cardinals signed in free agency to be the closer was Ryan Franklin, who they gave a 3 year, $6M deal and a 2 year, $6.5M deal after the first expired.
Holland’s yearly value would be more than the entire worth of the contract combined, and inflation isn’t nearly enough of a factor to change that. Even Jason Isringhausen‘s contract only paid him $10.63M (adjusted for inflation) during it’s most valuable season.
Point is, waging war in free agency for an elite arm was something that the St. Louis Cardinals were new to, which probably played a part in the delay in signing Holland.
This resulted in Holland not being signed until March 28, meaning that all of Spring Training was skipped, which I think played a huge part in Holland’s struggles in St. Louis.
Normalcy and Rhythm
Anyone who has pitched can tell you that a huge part of pitching is maintaining a rhythm, both on the field and in life in general. A pitching motion is like a clock, the body parts like the gears that drive it. If one of those gears becomes even a little loose, or it doesn’t turn at the time you need it, the whole delivery will be significantly altered.
This is common knowledge, especially as you continue to move up in the baseball world. By the time you reach the majors, your preparation has been condensed into a very rhythmic and consistent schedule. This keeps one of the most important gears of them all, the brain, as fresh and strong as it can be.
While this is much more applicable to starting pitchers, who have scheduled days they appear and set up daily routines based on how far out they are from a start, relievers can need a similar rhythm. For Holland, that rhythm was thrown off with the lack of a Spring Training.
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While it’s possible to work out to try and stay sharp, no amount of practice can replace real game reps against other major leaguers. While I would normally agree that pitchers are paid to be able to overcome these challenges, but missing such a large chunk of important prep work can’t simply be dismissed.
Would Holland have been able to perform for the St. Louis Cardinals had signed him before, or even part way through Spring Training? I believe so, because he showed that with a fresh start and rhythm, Holland performed exceptionally well with the Nationals.
As bad as he looked with the St. Louis Cardinals, his pitches themselves still had sharpness to them. His fastball was still lively, his slider still broke hard, it was simply his inability to properly locate. Holland could simply never find a rhythm here, which is why his performance changed so drastically when he moved to the next blank slate.
What should the Cardinals take?
So, the St. Louis Cardinals flopped in their first major attempt at acquiring a closer. Everyone has a first time, and the Cardinals cannot allow this situation to scare them away from talent.
What the Cardinals can do is learn from the mistakes of the past. That means understanding how much rhythm can affect a player. That means taking a deep look at a player’s consistency to see if he is the right fit. That means using the apprehension that the Holland deal caused to make smarter and decisive moves for relievers, not stop making them entirely.
Signing Greg Holland at the end of Spring Training did not turn out to be the best move, but it doesn’t have to be one that defines this St. Louis Cardinals front office. At this point, the team has to know that the Brett Cecil moves of the world are getting them nowhere, and there is plenty of great talent out there for the Cardinals to pick from. It’s simply a matter of learning, moving on and trying again.
Each player comes with his own story and situation, and Holland’s was the most interesting of them all. But Holland is his own person, so while they can learn things from it, the St. Louis Cardinals cannot allow the Holland move to dictate their future.