Right-hander Jonathan Holder is back at again in the Florida State League but as a reliever this time and could be even more dangerous out of the bullpen, a place where he says he feels more comfortable, which is hard to fathom considering how much success he had in a starting capacity last season.
As a starter last year for Tampa, he threw 103.1 innings with a 2.44 ERA and a 1.094 WHIP. He only allowed three home runs all season while having pinpoint control as attested by his 1.8 walks per nine innings, a full walk lower than when he was in Staten Island in 2014.
“I learned a lot last year, especially in this league, facing some good guys,” Holder said. “(Former pitching coach) Tommy Phelps was good for me as I was getting the ropes as a starter.”
As he good as he was out of the starting rotation, however, Holder doesn’t mind returning to a reliever role. He had a great spring re-acclimating himself back to the role.
“I actually love relieving,” Holder said. “I was a closer in college. It’s the gig that I like. Starting was fun, it gave me a chance to develop some pitches and be able to throw them a lot during the course of the season. Now I got a couple more pitches in my back pocket that I can go with.”
As a closer at Mississippi State he set school records for saves in a career, 37, and saves in a season, 21. He also tied the SEC record in a season with 21.
Holder has both a four-seam and two-seam fastball that sits around 90-91MPH. He also throws a changeup, curveball and cutter. Holder said expects to see the fastball velocity go up once he programs his body into more of a high effort and still maintain the mechanics that worked for him.
New Tampa pitching coach Tim Norton has shown him that not only does he need to pitch to his strengths but make sure he knows what the hitters weaknesses are so he can exploit them.
“In college, I just went with what worked for me,” Holder said. “Now it’s a little different, you need to how what the hitters tendencies are and I get more in depth with the scouting reports.”
Norton said that Holder doesn’t need much schooling, just give him the ball and let him pitch. It’s his competitiveness that Norton loves and knows with the game on the line Holder will want the ball and do well given the chance.
“I expect a lot of out him,” Norton said. “When he can command the fastball and keep them guessing with his four pitches he’ll be able to pitch in big spots.
New manager Patrick Osborne didn’t see much of Holder in spring because Holder was working with the Trenton and Scranton workout groups. And if Holder’s first appearance [two perfect innings accompanied by five strikeouts] was any indication, Osborne won’t see him much in Tampa either.
“He’s very good. I’m glad he’s here,” Osborne said. “Is it going to last? I don’t know. If he keeps pitching like he did (Thursday night) he’s gonna move right up the food chain.”
Holder pitched two more scoreless innings of relief on Sunday. Osborne stressed that because Holder is in Tampa doesn’t mean he isn’t good enough to move up but that there’s a logjam ahead of Holder and being in Tampa was a sure-fire way to get him innings and learn even more.
“It’s a good problem to have as an organization,” Osborne said. “And the point you try to convey to the player is, ‘you didn’t do anything wrong, don’t change what you’re doing.’”
Early in the year, Holder will most likely not pitch back to back days just so he can still get used to being back in the pen. But, in late May or early June, Osborne said he has no problem throwing him back to back if his pitch count was reasonable the night before.
Norton thinks Holder could become a closer in the future even though he doesn’t have the lights-out fastball every team in the MLB has seemed to fall in love with from a radar gun standpoint and it's because he does everything else so well.
“If you can pitch, you can pitch,” Norton said. “I’d rather have 88 and command than 100 and three straight balls.”
"He’s our ace in the hole,” Osborne concluded.