Earlier this week, before Greg Holland offered more evidence of his physical decline, manager Ned Yost affirmed his confidence in his closer.
I’ve never not trusted you, Yost said he told Holland. I’m not going to start now.
Yet as October approaches, the Royals are coming to grips with the possibility of shifting Holland into a different role in the bullpen. On Wednesday afternoon, a day after Holland threw fastballs in the upper 80s in a messy save against the Indians, Yost insisted Holland remained a ninth-inning fixture — unless, of course, the Royals saw a reason to make a switch.
“Being fair, Holly’s velocity has dropped,” Yost said. “But he’s always been a guy who has done it. Until he proves he can’t do it, he’s going to get the opportunity to do it. He’s earned it, over the years.”
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Implicit in Yost’s message is the club cannot afford to expose Holland in high-leverage situations if he cannot perform. Holland insists he is healthy. But his fastball has fallen significantly from the 96-mph heater he threw with consistency during his renaissance from 2011 to 2014. He spent time on the disabled list earlier this season because of a pectoral strain, and the team does not want to ever use him in non-save situations.
As Holland struggles — with a 3.56 ERA and a career-worst 2.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio — the team possesses an obvious alternative in All-Star reliever Wade Davis. For the past two season, Yost fashioned a formula where Kelvin Herrera pitched the seventh, Davis handled the eighth and Holland closed the ninth. But Holland’s continued troubles may hamper that plan.
“If it gets to be an issue, we’ll evaluate it,” Yost said. “It hasn’t become an issue yet. People want to get nervous because he’s throwing 90 or 91 mph. That’s fine. But right now, it really hasn’t become an issue. If it does, we’ll evaluate it.”
With his fastball dimming, Holland has begun to experiment on the mound. He adjusted the break on his slider on Tuesday against the Indians. At times, he appeared to throw a cutter.
He issued a leadoff walk and a subsequent single. Both runners reached scoring position on a wild pitch. Holland managed to generate a 93-mph fastball to strike out rookie infielder Giovanny Urshela.
When Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland discuss Holland, they sound like fight experts discussing a champion boxer mounting a final title defense. Their respect for his on-mound courage is massive. But both acknowledged the fragility of his current state.
“This is a guy who has so much guts and heart,” Eiland said. “He’s going out there and doing anything and everything he can to get three outs. And guys like that, they’re special guys, because not everybody is made that way. That’s why he’s able to get three outs despite being a little banged up or tired or whatever the case may be, worn down.”
Holland has blown only four saves this season. He saved his 31st game on Tuesday. For now, he maintains his title because of
his performance and his history. But if he stumbles in the final two weeks, the Royals may shift Davis into the closing role.
“We’re not going to jeopardize anything once the playoffs starts,” Yost said. “We’re going to make sure (Holland is) 100-percent ready to nail it down. And when you talk to him, he’s like ‘I got this.’”