There has been some good buzz lately about the Royals’ reunion with Greg Holland, and rightly so. He’s a Royals legend, their single-season saves leader and one of only four pitchers to collect 100 saves in Royal blue. He was truly an elite closer during his time in Kansas City, and the fact that he was drafted and developed by the Royals makes his homecoming particularly warm and fuzzy. His signing is a bona fide feel-good story in the making if he can recapture a bit of the old Dirty South magic. Go get ‘em, Dutch.
As nice as it would be to have vintage Holland back, the reality of the situation is kind of bleak. He’s a non-roster invitee and one of about a bajillion relievers competing for a spot in the Royals’ largely unestablished ‘pen. He hasn’t been the same since Tommy John surgery, and his fastball, which once sat around 97 mph, was under 92 last season. He’s a sentimental favorite and definitely worth a look in spring training, but I’ll be surprised if he plays a key role on this year’s team and thoroughly confused if he dominates like he did in the HDH days.
To be clear, I really, really want Greg Holland to succeed, but I just can’t squint hard enough to convince myself it’s likely to happen. No, if we’re talking about reclamation projects, there’s another feel-good story in the making that seems a bit more intriguing to me, and that’s Lee’s Summit native Trevor Rosenthal. It’s not quite as tantalizing as Greg Holland: The Return, but “local-boy-makes-good” is always a nice narrative. And Rosenthal just might have a little left in the tank.
I actually remember seeing Trevor Rosenthal pitch back in 2016. All I really remembered about it was that it was at Busch Stadium against the Marlins, and he had the bases loaded and couldn’t seem to get an out. I looked up the game log, and my memory served pretty well. Rosenthal, having recently lost his closing job, was called in to relieve starter Jaime Garcia with one out and runners at first and second in the top of the seventh and the Cardinals winning 4-2. Rosenthal struck out the first batter he faced, then walked Christian Yelich to load the bases. He then hit Giancarlo Stanton with a pitch to score one run before giving up a Marcel Ozuna single to score two more. He was then pulled, and Kevin Siegrist walked in another run before inducing a very deep flyout to end the inning. Marlins 6, Cardinals 4.
First of all, let’s take a moment to remember that Marlin outfield. Yeesh. But more importantly (at least to the context of this article), Rosenthal coughed up a lead that the Cardinals would not retake and turned what had been a decent game into a circus. He also raised his ERA, walk rate and K rate that day. And in that regard, it was a classic 2016 Trevor Rosenthal outing. That season, he posted what was then a career high ERA of 4.46 in 40 1⁄3 innings, while striking out a whopping 56 batters and walking an equally whopping 29 more. Though he wouldn’t sustain the elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery until the next year, he did miss two months with rotator cuff inflammation and saw his average fastball velocity dip to 97.7 mph, which remains the lowest of his career.
And that’s the thing. The dude has always thrown gas. In 2017, when he had Tommy John surgery, his average fastball velocity was 98.8 mph. In his dreadful comeback attempt last year? The one where he made headlines for having an ERA of infinity? Those woes had nothing to do with fastball velocity, which averaged 98.1 mph for the season. When he’s on, his fastball isn’t just thrown really hard, it has rise and run that make it a formidable offering.
It’s a damn fine pitch, and unlike Greg Holland, he’s still throwing as hard as ever – even after surgery.
But let’s revisit those 2019 woes for a moment because they were particularly woeful and worth a look. Though the velocity was still there, his fastball lacked the life it had prior to surgery. According to Statcast, it had about two inches less rise than it did in his All Star 2015 season and had four inches less run. But a bigger problem was his complete inability to find the strike zone. In a mere 15 1⁄3 innings, Rosenthal walked 26, threw nine wild pitches and hit four batsmen. That’s pre-glasses Rick Vaughn action right there. But he also struck out 17 and didn’t give up a single homerun. In fact, when opposing hitters managed to put the ball in play, they did very little damage. His average exit velocity, xBA, xSLG and barrel rate were below MLB average, and his ground ball rate of 44.7% was respectable.
Of course, we’re talking about a very small sample here, and opposing hitters knew they could do more damage by keeping their bats on their shoulders than by swinging (they only swung at a rate of 36%). Many of them were probably just trying not to get drilled. Those strikeouts should be taken with a grain of salt too, he managed to have a below-average strikeout rate despite striking out more than a batter-per-nine innings thanks to all those walks. That’s remarkable.
But as far as bounce back candidates go, he’s a decent one. The fact that his fastball velocity hasn’t waned is promising, and he has shown the ability to be an excellent relief pitcher in the past. If he can find the command he had in his prime and become a reliable option out of Matheny’s bullpen, he’d make a nice addition to a relief corps in need of depth. I’m cautiously optimistic about the trio of Ian Kennedy, Scott Barlow and Tim Hill, but they can’t do it alone.
If the Royals are to avoid another season of the bullpen blues, they’ll need some of their young pitchers to take a step forward, and it wouldn’t hurt for a reclamation project like Rosenthal or Greg Holland to return to form. After whiffing on virtually every veteran reliever signing the past two years, they have to be due, right?
I mean… right?