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Derek Holland using new approach to pass early tests

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Recipe for success could backfire when weather warms up, but present results take priority

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Before anything else, Derek Holland’s first task is to get to the second half of May in full working order. It’d be nice if he were able to get an intriguing player in return at the trade deadline, and it’d be a refreshing success story if he could somehow turn in a Chris Sale-ish rate of winnable starts, even without the outright dominance.

Yet after two successful outings — including six innings of one-hit ball against the Indians in his first White Sox winner on Wednesday — the goal remains the same. As long as Carlos Rodon is out of the rotation, the Sox could really use him taking the ball every fifth day until the prospect cavalry can come into play, both in terms of service time and performance.

The White Sox have been able to avoid Dylan Covey so far, but the de facto fifth starter is scheduled to start in Minnesota on Friday. If you’re holding out hope for Covey to surprise, he spent the spring trying to win a job without an effective split-changeup. I’m not saying he’s going to be vastly different from his March form akin to the way Zach Putnam improves once he’s out of the desert, especially since I’m not familiar with how Covey used that pitch in the past. There just isn’t a whole lot of reason to think Covey can succeed outside of a total fluke, so I appreciate the emergence of any legitimate possibility.

Regarding Holland, it’s difficult to take anything away from his performances, even if the results are a little fluky themselves. Yes, he walked four Indians. Yes, he gave up about a half-dozen hard-hit balls, including one ending in a nifty play from Tyler Saladino that staved off a potential first-inning mess.

On the other hand, that Saladino play only materialized because Holland couldn’t get a clear strike three on Carlos Santana.

Compromised strike zones again seem to be a problem early on for Sox pitchers, and Narvaez also added a leadoff catcher’s interference that Holland had to work around. Given the obstacles and the quality of lineup faced, a high-walk tightrope act is understandable.

It’s the small sample size season, so hell if I know what parts of his performance are sustainable. Complicating matters further, his body of work is even smaller than the rest because he’s going about his business in a new way relative to the rest of his career.

Holland has worked around jams early on by using a vastly different pitch mix. Brooks Baseball’s percentages are off, so I can only go by Statcast, which jibes with FanGraphs. He’s gone from a sinker-slider mix to a fastball-curve, and fastballs no longer comprise the majority of his arsenal:

Derek Holland pitch mix

Pitch 2017 2016 2015 2014
Pitch 2017 2016 2015 2014
Four-seam 29.4 1.4 0.7 1
Sinker 13.9 58.9 58.4 56.4
Changeup 14.9 12.5 10.1 7.7
Slider 18.6 19.3 18.7 22.9
Knuckle Curve 21.1 7.5 11.6 11.5
Data from Baseball Savant

(Brooks’ data for Holland’s start on Wednesday quibbles on fastball-sinker identification, but it agreed on the uptick in curves.)

As you might expect, Holland has gotten away from groundballs (42 to 38 to 33 percent over the last three years), so this particular brand of success could be short-lived as the weather warms up.

The good news? Well, it’s not like Holland’s previous success relied on low home-run rates. He gave up his share of them during even his better years.

Moreover, he hasn’t appeared to lose any more arm strength.

Remembering 2016’s veteran starters who collapsed — John Danks and Mat Latos — both entered the season with diminished velocity, even when only compared to their injury-hampered selves. The writing was on the wall for Danks, but the hope for Latos was that he was merely ramping up his stuff after a partial 2015 and a delayed introduction to spring training in 2016. That didn’t happen.

Holland doesn’t require the same wishcasting. His fastball is sitting at 92, which is two ticks shy of his peak, and about 1.5 mph short of his last good season, but in line with what he’d thrown last season. The decreased reliance on fastballs might be an acknowledgement and adjustment to a lack of sizzle, but fortunately he throws with his left hand, so a transition to the crafty lifestyle is possible if he can show enough command. He just needs to be healthy enough to hone it, so availability uber alles applies to him as much as it does to the White Sox as a whole.