Minus the venerable veteran Joakim Soria, the Kansas City Royals bullpen had to have felt about like a college pitching staff last season. The primary contributors ranged in age from 21 to 25.
Whether by choice or by default, the Royals stocked their bullpen with rookies and rolled the dice last season. The results were mixed, but the experience gained gives KC much to be excited about going into 2012.
Greg Holland was the most effective setup man of the bunch.
“It was just a lot of fun,” Holland said of being part of such a young bullpen. “I think with being a young team we have a lot of camaraderie that I don’t know if a lot of other teams have.”
Holland leads a group of relievers, including Crow, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Blake Wood and Nate Adcock, who were barely old enough to buy a beer to celebrate victories last season. He said the group’s experience winning together at the minor league level could help them be successful in KC.
“We’ve been through highs and lows, all the way from the time we were drafted to being on the same (minor league) teams all the way up to the major league season.
“We’re young, but we expect to win,” Holland said at a recent Royals caravan stop. “I think being young, we’re ready to go out there and raise the bar.”
And no young reliever is generating more enthusiasm than Holland. While Aaron Crow got the most publicity and the all-star invitation, Holland quietly impressed those who know pitching best.
None other than Jeff Montgomery, media analyst and former Royals all-star, is singing Holland’s praises.
“He certainly has proven to himself, and to his teammates and to the organization, that he has the stuff to do whatever they want him to do as a major league pitcher,” Montgomery said recently, stating that Holland has all the makings of a big league closer.
A rocky big league baptism in 2010 forced Holland to begin last season in Omaha, but a promotion wasn’t long in coming.
While the other rookies ran hot and cold, Holland was consistent and effective from the moment he was promoted in May. In 60 innings, Holland surrendered just a .933 WHIP and struck out 74. His 1.80 ERA was by far the best of any Royal with more than 15 innings pitched.
Strikeouts have always been a part of Holland’s game. Unfortunately, so have control issues. Holland credits his ability to get ahead of hitters for the improvement.
“I got my first call-up in 2010, and my problem was not getting ahead in counts,” Holland said. “I was falling behind and then having to be too predictable. You know, 2-0 fastballs are a lot easier to hit than 0-2 fastballs.
“I knew, and the coaches knew, and the front office knew, that I had the stuff to be good. It was just how long is it going to take me to figure out how to get ahead. I really worked on it and got better at it and was able to do it for pretty much the whole year.”
Holland said he might have had more success than his bullpen mates because he learned to control his thoughts on the mound.
“I don’t have it all figured out, but I know I was able to control myself,” Holland said. “When things start going bad, it’s always better to give up one run than two runs. And you’re going to give up runs. So you’ve got to stay calm so that you don’t compound those mistakes.
“You see guys get amped up in those situations and then you walk a guy and that leads to an extra run. Being able to control your emotions helps a lot.”
Montgomery points to mechanics when describing Holland’s closer-type stuff.
“Everything he throws is going downhill,” Montgomery said. “Whether it’s from the arm angle or if its from the velocity, or the lack of, and the movement of the baseball, if things are going down, you have a chance to get hitters out. And that’s what I saw from Greg Holland from day one last year.
“He reminds me a lot of myself, because he’s a guy who wasn’t a high draft choice, wasn’t a guy who was expected to be closer someday. But he’s got the stuff to do it.”
Taken in the 10th round as a 21-year-old out of Western Carolina University, Holland needed four-plus years of development in the minors to get him ready to succeed in the big leagues at age 26.
Montgomery, also a former collegian, was drafted in the 9th round and didn’t become a full-time big leaguer until he was 26.
Montgomery spent a couple of years in the set up role before amassing 304 saves as a closer. Holland may well be on a similar career path. He saved four games last year, while also notching five wins in relief.
Holland so impressed the league that his name has come up in trade rumors this winter. But to this point, the Royals seem determined to hold onto him.
With Soria and newcomer Jonathan Broxton the likely candidates to close games this season, Holland’s role remains to be seen. But he says he doesn’t mind that KC added Broxton to the mix.
“He’s an all-star, and he’s proven he can close, so that was a really big move,” Holland said. “I feel like we’ve got four or five guys down there who are legitimate closers.”
Holland believes his bullpen mates will be more than just a year older this season. He foresees dramatic progress as a whole.
“We expect to do better than last year. If everyone stays healthy, you’ve got Broxton and Soria who are all-star caliber closers. And then Crow who was an all-star last year. Timmy (Collins) had some walk issues, but has electric stuff. We’ve all seen that. I think we have a really good chance of being a top-notch bullpen.”