The Cubs announced Thursday that they have agreed with right-handed reliever Jonathan Holder on a non-guaranteed contract for 2021. The 27-year-old was a sixth round pick by the Yankees in 2014 and he has been in their organization ever since, going 10-6 with 14 holds and a 4.38 ERA across 157 major league games. All but two of those appearances have come in relief, though Holder has frequently gone more than an inning at a time.
His best season came in 2018, when he made 60 appearances with a 3.14 ERA and 3.04 FIP. Interestingly enough, he also had a career-low 0.55 home runs per nine innings despite a career-low 29.3% groundball rate. Since then, however, the homers and grounds alike have trended up just like his ERA. The 2020 season also saw his strikeouts and walks both moving precipitously in disparate directions.
It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong and why, but Holder appears to have made significant changes to his pitch repertoire during the shortened season. He had upped the usage of his changeup in previous seasons because it was a good auxiliary offering, but it may have been exposed in 2020 as he increased it to 25% of his total.
Holder was also throwing the change harder, to the point that it varied from his fastball by less than five ticks rather than the gap of 8-9 he generated early in his career. He halved the use of his slider, which was so similar to his curve that some services don’t differentiate between the two. Either way, his breaking ball(s) were ineffective and he lacked a real put-away option.
There’s not much on the surface to be excited about here, but that’s the case with most of these bullpen moves in the offseason. My guess is that the Cubs see something in Holder they think can be coaxed out via the Pitch Lab and a tweak or two. Maybe it’s a grip change that will differentiate the shapes of his breaking balls or a sequencing adjustment that will allow him to better tunnel his pitches.
While some will no doubt find a way to be upset about this move as further evidence of the organization’s cheapness, it’s really no different from any one of a dozen or so similar acquisitions we’ll see over the coming weeks. The risk is nil and there’s a chance it gives the bullpen an experienced righty who can handle multiple innings.