Ask Andy: Is there reason for concern about Royals closer Greg Holland?

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Greg Holland made the save by throwing in the ninth inning in game two of the World Series on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Greg Holland made the save by throwing in the ninth inning in game two of the World Series on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

The Royals have peeled off four wins in a row after a brutal homestand. They will face the Cardinals this weekend at Busch Stadium in a matchup that could preview the World Series. To whet your appetite before first pitch at 7:10 p.m., we tackled some pressing questions about the club.

It’s troubling. There’s no doubt about that.

The Royals refuse to utter a negative word about Holland. Why should they? He has a 1.76 ERA. He has blown one save in 12 opportunities, and he came back to pitch a second inning that night in Detroit and earn a win. He is a two-time All-Star closer, probably the best reliever in the American League from 2011 to 2014, and he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.

But if you watch his outings, like rival scouts do, you notice some alarming signs. First, the most basic: His fastball velocity is down a decent amount. He sat at 95.8 mph in 2014. He is sitting 93.4 mph in 2015. He has started throwing more curveballs, and the other night he flung a few change-ups.

Another reason for concern: He’s already been on the disabled list once this season for an arm injury. The greatest predicator for future injuries is past history. Holland is a tireless worker, and he has transformed himself from a 10th-round pick into one of the game’s elite relievers. But rival talent evaluators still wonder if he is compensating for some sort of discomfort that is affecting his performance.

Look, all pitchers deal with pain, every single time they throw. It’s part of the job. But once it starts to influence how you pitch, it becomes an issue. A glance at Holland’s peripheral statistics is revealing: His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 1.44. A year ago, it was 4.50. A year before that, it was 5.72.

Holland is walking batters more than ever, with 5.3 walks per nine. Even more troubling? His strikeout numbers are way, way down. He is striking out only 7.6 batters per nine, well below his career average of 12.2 per nine. Holland’s delivery is not an aesthetic marvel, but scouts who’ve seen him lately say he looks misaligned, which leads to poor location.

So he isn’t commanding the baseball particularly well, and he isn’t generating strikeouts to compensate for it. In short, he’s experienced some good luck so far. Opponents have a preposterous .114 batting average on balls in play against him, well below their career average of .287, which suggestions he is due for some hellacious regression in the near-future.

Let’s review: His fastball velocity is down. Walks are up. Strikeouts are down. His BABIP is unsustainable. He’s been on the disabled list once already, and scouts wonder if he’ll be back there again.

And none of this, none of it, is a secret to the 29 other clubs. The Royals owe Holland $8.25 million in 2015. Through arbitration, he will receive a raise for 2016. So his trade value is diminished by all these factors.

As long as Holland continues to procure outs, in whatever fashion, the Royals can avoid an awkward situation. But one could be looming, if Holland’s batted-ball luck regresses. It’s a situation worth monitoring as the summer continues.

It could happen as more arms arrive in the summer. With Danny Duffy and Kris Medlen due to arrive in July, the Royals will have a surplus of arms. But it’s more likely they deal pitchers like Joe Blanton, Franklin Morales or maybe Ryan Madson than pitchers like Holland, Wade Davis or Kelvin Herrera. It’s hard to make a move with Luke Hochevar, since he’s not far removed from Tommy John surgery, and it’s unclear what sort of asset he can be for them in 2016.

Don’t hold your breath. In general, this is a good strategy, especially if you want to keep breathing. But in this case, it is doubly effective.

Ned Yost does not like tinkering with his batting order. He thinks it is an ineffective strategy, and he can quote a story he read by Bill James that agrees with his stance. So as long as the Royals keep winning, Escobar will continue to lead off.

You could make a more optimal lineup. It’s not hard: Escobar has a .296 OBP, and belongs in the bottom third of the batting order. But Yost refuses to fix what isn’t broken, even if it could use some fixing.

If that makes sense.

Right now, it’s hard to say how much blame to ascribe to the injury and how much blame to ascribe to rust. Rios is hitting .129, with four hits in 31 at-bats, since returning from the disabled list on May 31. He’s played nine games. That’s way too small a sample size, if you’re trying to discern a meaning.

But Rios does feel discomfort when he swings sometimes. He is also dealing with a thumb issue in his other hand. It’s a toxic mix for a hitter, especially after his lengthy layoff. Will it linger? Who knows? The early returns are not encouraging, but its still early.

Here is what Yost had to say about it:

“It’s just timing, getting his timing back,” Yost said. “You sit out six weeks, and it’s hard to jump right back into it. These at-bats for him right now are kind of like spring training at-bats. He’s just getting his timing back down to where he’s comfortable.”

His pitch count should be built up by the start of July. Yost indicated the All-Star break was a reasonable deadline to expect Medlen. He still has not started his minor-league rehabilitation assignment, and the club can afford to take its time with him.

The Philadelphia Eagles. I stopped rooting for them in 2006, when I decided I wanted to become a reporter. I was also tired of letting them make me miserable. I never paid attention to the Phillies, because they were so terrible.

This is accurate. I am brand-loyal to Old Spice. Thank you for asking.

I get asked a version of this question a lot, but I like answering it and the choices always change based on my mood, so here’s the latest edition:

1. “Sink” by Brand New.

2. “Get By” by Talib Kweli.

3. “Rising Down” by The Roots.

4. “Get It” by Run The Jewels.

5. “Anything ‘Cept The Truth” by Eagles of Death Metal.

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To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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