Frustrated by his start last weekend in a loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants starter Derek Holland tried something different during a midweek bullpen session.
He pitched from the left side of the rubber instead of the right side, which he usually occupies. It was his idea, though he admitted he didn’t have a good reason for the switch. He said he just felt like doing it.
From the beginning of his next start against the Miami Marlins on Wednesday, it was clear the maneuver had merit. Holland struck out the side in the first inning using only his sinker and slider. He finished with seven punch-outs — tied for a season high. He limited Miami to three runs across six innings in an eventual 6-5 win.
“It was a good idea,” catcher Nick Hundley said. “It was something that he worked hard on in his bullpen and really did a good job in his side work. … When you have a guy who’s almost nine, 10 years in the league and is still trying to get better, it’s always nice.”
That start gave the Giants momentum entering their four-game set with the San Diego Padres. The next night, ace Madison Bumgarner pushed the team back to .500 with a vintage eight-inning gem.
If Holland’s adjustment on the hill leads to sustained improvement, it could help shore up the bottom of San Francisco’s rotation as its top arms — like Bumgarner — return to health.
When the Giants signed Holland as a free agent this past offseason, he was an unknown commodity. Would he be the guy who, from 2011-2013, started 92 games and posted a 3.98 ERA with the Texas Rangers? Or, would he fail to bounce back from a string of injuries that sapped his ability to miss bats?
Before his Wednesday start against the Marlins, it had been a mix.
Holland pitched better than he did the past three years, perhaps most encouragingly getting hitters to swing and miss at the highest rate since his 2014 season. But he hadn’t quite clicked. His lack of long outings — he still hasn’t lasted more than 6 1/3 innings this year — frustrated him.
After the left-hander surrendered a three-run home run and RBI ground rule double to Ian Desmond in a 6-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies earlier this year, he sighed as he tried to explain what went wrong. Desmond has been one of the least productive first basemen in baseball.
“I made a mistake, and you can’t do those kinds of things at this level,” Holland offered.
On Wednesday, though, Holland avoided debilitating miscues. Not only did his solid performance lead to a series-clinching victory over the Marlins, but it also bridged the back end of the Giants rotation with Bumgarner. That kind of showing from a fifth starter on a deal worth less than $2 million is a boon.
If it continues, it would be a heist.
Consider this: Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija have combined to start just 17 of 76 games this year, a mark that pales in comparison to recent seasons. As a result, the Giants have been forced to turn to their bullpen more than they’ve been used to. In 2016 and 2017, with the trio of starters mostly healthy and able to eat innings, relievers accounted for only 34 percent of the team’s innings pitched. This year, that number has spiked to 41 percent.
Holland’s performance followed solid starts from Dereck Rodriguez, Andrew Suarez and Chris Stratton, each of whom left their outings in line for a win. Samardzija and Cueto are on rehab assignments and should return soon. Bumgarner looked back to his dominant self on Thursday night.
Bochy complimented the back of the rotation, and said good starting pitching can be contagious. He thought winning the final two games against Miami established a rhythm heading into Bumgarner’s start against the Padres.
Said catcher Buster Posey: “We haven’t had [those deep starts] very much this year with Cueto being down, Bumgarner being down hurt. Shark’s a guy who can eat up some innings for you. This bullpen has worked a lot in the first half this year. We’re going to want them to be strong down the stretch as well.”
Holland becoming more consistent and avoiding big innings will provide a lift in that regard. He hopes standing on the left side of the rubber — so that his pitches come in at a different angle than before — will do the trick.
Hundley, catching Holland on Wednesday while Posey had a day off, was impressed with the early returns.
“It was just to create a little bit more deception,” Hundley said. “Try to widen the plate out a little bit. … It’s something he hasn’t done [much], so it’ll just continue to improve.”
Holland was mostly unhittable until the seventh inning, when a double and single to lead off the inning ended his afternoon. He was unhappy he couldn’t leave on a brighter note. Despite that hiccup, though, it was one of his most impressive starts of the season.
When he walked off the mound, fans at AT&T Park gave him a standing ovation.
“The main thing, I think, is [Hundley] and I establishing what we needed to, getting ahead of hitters,” Holland said. “We didn’t really give up too much hard contact. … I feel like I’ve progressed big time.”