The Kansas City Royals have gotten off to a nice start, and even though the team has played only 5 percent of the season, the typical fan appears more than more than satisfied with how things have gone so far and optimistic about the team's chances this year. The only current controversy surrounding the team is whether Greg Holland should stay the team's closer.
Ned Yost has maintained that Holland will pitch the ninth for the Royals, telling the media:
"Greg Holland's our closer, so there's no question there. When he's right, he's as dominant a closer as there is in the American League."
I think Yost is correct in emphasizing that Holland is still the team's closer. The manger believed Holland was the best option at the start of the season, and it would worry me if he changed his mind after three innings. I want my team's manager to not overreact to small samples and keep things in a more long-term perspective, and keeping Holland the closer shows that Yost is applying that perspective to this issue.
Yost has also done a good job resting Holland after his more laborious outings this season. Both Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera have earned saves for the Royals this season, showing that Yost is not so dedicated to the notion of a traditional closer that he refuses to trot anyone else out in the ninth inning.
It's unrealistic to expect Yost to completely break the notion of a traditional closer, so somebody on the team will be used in the ninth inning almost exclusively, regardless of how high-leverage the situation is. So unless Holland blows his next three saves in a row and Yost is forced to remove him, Holland will remain the team's closer for the near future.
If Holland is to remain the team's closer, it's imperative that he fix whatever issues have plagued him and fix them quickly. The reliever believes he has started to iron out the kinks, telling reporters that he changed his approach while pitching to Joe Mauer:
"My mindset was to get ahead so I can use all my pitches, which I haven't done the last few outings, I was so [focused] on getting ahead with my fastball that I haven't pitched like I pitched in years past, when I would throw any pitch in any count."
Holland is correct that he has thrown more fastballs to start at-bats so far this season than he has in the past. He has started 19 of the 20 batters he has faced (including Mauer) with a fastball, up from the 68 percent of batters started with a fastball in 2012.
If that change in mindset will cause Holland to start locating his fastball more consistently, then it's definitely worth changing. 48 percent of Holland's fastballs are currently strikes, down from 64 percent last season. It's been particularly problematic on the first pitch of the at-bat, as the closer has only started seven of his 20 batters faced with strikes.
Holland has never had the best control, so it's especially important for him to start batters off with strikes. Hitters are more likely to chase at his off-speed pitches, particularly his slider, if they are down in the count. Despite his ineffective fastball, Holland's slider has been just as effective this season as in 2012, which is an encouraging sign for his future performance.
The reliever has yet to throw his curveball and has only thrown one changeup this season, despite them consisting of nearly 10 percent of his pitches thrown last season. This may reflect Holland's belief that he has been to focused on throwing fastballs, or it may reflect the fact that he keeps falling behind hitters. It likely reflects both.
I'm hopeful that Holland's mindset is causing him to throw poorly located and forced fastballs, as his inability to locate his fastball appears to be his biggest issue. My skeptical side worries that the issue is more serious, and simple change of approach will not achieve the desired results.
Of course, we all need to remember that Holland has thrown three innings in 2013, and his sample so far holds little predictive value to how he will perform for the rest of the season. Relievers, however, operate almost entirely out of a world of small sample sizes, so every appearance is over-analyzed.
Holland will receive a few more chances at closer to fix his issues, as Yost is supporting his original candidate for the job. He will need to start locating his fastball more consistently to reward Yost's faith in him and continue closing games for the Royals.