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The Dutch Disaster

Or: how one pitch can say so much

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates
“Hey, what about the slider?” “Way ahead of you, buddy.”
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I am beginning this column late Friday night, shortly after watching Greg Holland come in and commence 2018's testicle exploding shit storm. Thus, it’s possible my feelings of frustration are still a bit raw at the moment. I do not, and will not, apologise for that. However, I will endeavour to keep this all as rational and hopefully balanced as possible.

First off, I need to say that Jordan Hicks really needs to be in the minor leagues. Yes, he throws very hard, and yes, it’s very exciting, and yes, we’ve all heard the announcers tell us how excited we should be about his arm. The problem? He’s just not a very good pitcher. Not yet, anyway. He doesn’t have the command of his stuff to pound the zone, and he doesn’t have anything that really misses bats, either. Can he be Zach Britton somewhere down the line? Maybe. And it’d be really cool if he does end up that kind of pitcher. But the kind of pitcher he is right now just isn’t helping. He’s not ready. Period.

The whole saga of Hicks coming to the big leagues has left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, honestly; the decision seems to have been basically based on one great spring training outing and Yadier Molina getting all excited and pow-wowing with Matheny and Mo about how good the kid’s stuff is. Look, I love Yadi as much as most fans, but he’s not in player development. And in order to shoehorn a 21 year old kid who had never pitched above High A ball onto the roster, the Cards ended up costing themselves what looked like a perfect cromulent major league reliever in Josh Lucas, who, remember, pitched very well himself in spring training.

I guess my point is this: at some point, the front office has to actually act like the grownups in the room, rather than constantly acquiescing to whatever dumb ass thing the field manager wants, or making some concession to the one-game scouting report of the catcher. Maybe they really did think Hicks was ready, and was going to go all Roberto Osuna on the league. If so, they were wrong. It’s time to correct that mistake, though, and get the kid back to the minor where he can actually, you know, develop and learn to pitch. Because right now he’s not a major leaguer.

Okay, on to my main point, and I will try to keep it brief. Greg Holland was, to put it lightly, awful. I think we all know that; anyone watching that game could see he was just throwing meatballs up to the plate. The first-pitch double to Dickerson was a bad pitch, but it was also a good job of ambushing a weak fastball by Dickerson. What I really want to talk about is the Francisco Cervelli at-bat. Specifically, I want to talk about one pitch in that at-bat.

So here’s the scenario: Cervelli is up, one man on, no outs. Guy on second doesn’t matter, because you have a three-run lead, so the only really important thing to do is get the out. The runner moves up, so be it. I point that out because we don’t need to worry about strategically approaching the batter with an eye toward preventing a runner from advancing, or shoot for a force play somewhere, or anything like that. With a three run lead in the bottom of the ninth and a guy on second, you’re basically pitching almost like the bases are empty. Just focus on the hitter.

Here’s the chart of the four pitches Holland threw to Cervelli:

First pitch: 87.1 mph slider, called strike. The pitch was up a little, but it was on the outer half, and going with the offspeed pitch on the first pitch isn’t a bad idea. Very few hitters can pull the trigger on a first pitch breaking ball; that’s why it’s such a useful pitch if you can get the breaker over for a strike. So, okay. Not great location, but not a bad idea at all.

Second pitch: 86.8 mph slider, called strike. This one was further away, right on the edge, but it was also very up. Not at all the kind of location you really want on a breaking ball, but Cervelli took it, and Holland got away with it. Again, it looked like the hitter was probably gearing up for a fastball, and couldn’t quite pull the trigger. Also, it was a borderline pitch, so Cervelli certainly had reason to take it.

Pitch three: 87 mph slider, ball. Another slider, and still too much up. Far enough out, though, that you could consider it a waste pitch, and just hope to get Cervelli to chase. Really, though, if you’re looking to throw a chase slider, it needs to be down, if not in the dirt than close. So bad location at the very least.

And now here’s the pitch I want to talk about, because I feel like it’s really emblematic of what is wrong with Greg Holland at this point in his career.

Pitch four: 87.9 mph slider. In play, no out, single to right. Honestly, this one was much better located than the slider before, and maybe the best-located slider of the bunch, really. Here’s the problem, though: it was the fourth slider in a row, and not at all the pitch you want to throw to try and get Francisco Cervelli out there.

To me, you’ve thrown three straight sliders, all of them away, including one well out of the zone. The hitter is looking away, and has seen the breaking ball very well. This is the perfect time to come up and in on the hitter, at or above the hands, and try to either tie him up to get a swing and miss or contact in on the handle of the bat. Something like the location of the first-pitch fastball to Dickerson, in fact. Throw a strike if you can, but get the hitter off the plate even if you can’t. Don’t let a guy just dive out over the plate.

Instead, Holland went with a fourth straight slider, and while it was located well it was too predictable, and thrown to a player who had no fear of something on the inner half. Cervelli was able to go slider hunting out there because every pitch had been out there and he was looking for it. Now, to be fair to Holland, it was a pretty good slider, and Cervelli just got enough of the ball to hit a soft liner to right, but just because he executed the pitch fairly well doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad plan to begin with.

The problem here, for me, is much the thing I was worried about with Holland going all the way back to before the Cardinals signed him. Namely, he simply doesn’t have the fastball to challenge hitters in the zone any longer, and thus is basically relegated to just flipping slider after slider up there, either trying to surprise hitters with offspeed stuff or get them to chase. It’s not a sustainable approach, I don’t feel. Greg Holland of 2014 with a 96 mph fastball could have come over the plate on the inner half, elevated, and gotten that swing and miss, or popup, or even just the brushback he needed. Greg Holland of 2018, though, just continues to throw junk off the plate, trying to get hitters to get themselves out, because he can’t beat them with stuff anymore.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that in the next at-bat, in which Colin Moran hit the ball that Jose Martinez was unable to handle (and don’t think I’m trying to gloss over the defensive issues in the inning; Holland probably should have been able to muddle through had his fielders done their jobs), Holland threw five straight sliders. The double by Jordy Mercer came on a slider right over the middle of the plate. It was down, but it was center cut.

I was concerned about Holland before the Cards signed him, based on what I saw from him last season in Colorado, when his approach seemed to be mostly junk off the plate. I was concerned when they signed him, because another year added on to a guy who seemed to get by with junk off the plate last year, who didn’t appear capable of challenging hitters in the zone, frankly scared the hell out of me.

And after watching him in a Cardinal uniform, I’m more concerned than ever. In fact, I’m not just concerned about him at this point. Now I’m concerned that a season where the Cardinals absolutely do not have a margin for error if they want to compete with the big boys in the National League is already starting to look like another case of bullpen woes potentially sinking the ship, and it’s only going to get worse, I fear, if Holland is afforded the kind of rope that a Proven Closer of his stature undoubtedly deserves in the mind of the manager, and others.