Kansas City's Greg Holland, the best closer that hardly anybody knows, is unflappable, unpretentious and a bit undersized at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds. His hobbies include hunting and fishing, beard-growing, lighting up radar guns and shaking hands with catcher Salvador Perez after game-ending punchouts.
It's hard for a good old country boy in a small market to attract national attention, but Holland is starting to develop a following. A few devotees on Twitter have begun a campaign to christen him "Dirty South." The nickname has yet to catch on in the manner of teammate Billy Butler's "Country Breakfast" moniker, but some of Holland's fellow Royals think it has potential.
"It makes sense," left fielder Alex Gordon said. "He's a dirty pitcher and he's from the south. Put two and two together and you've got it."
Holland, 27, is putting up some hellacious numbers in his second season as Kansas City's closer. After a shaky start, he has converted 17 straight save opportunities -- including saves Friday and Saturday that allowed the Royals to make a small dent in Detroit's lead in the American League Central.
He's averaging 14.84 strikeouts per nine innings, and generating that same queasy feeling that Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and -- of course -- Mariano Rivera elicit when they come out of the bullpen.
In 22 innings at Kauffman Stadium this year, Holland has allowed one run for an ERA of 0.41. Since May 12, he has given up nine hits in 25 innings and held opponents to a .108 batting average. And the Elias Sports Bureau notes that in a 5-1 win over the Yankees on July 8, he became the first pitcher to complete a save with three bases-loaded strikeouts since Baltimore's George Sherrill achieved the feat against the Cubs in 2008.
Even limited encounters with Holland leave an impression. Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis, who has been tearing it up against all kinds of pitching this season, is 1-for-5 with a strikeout in his career against Holland. Kipnis would prefer to save future encounters with Holland for special occasions -- like leap years or lunar eclipses.
"Not fun at all," Kipnis said. "We've talked about it. He told me he doesn't like to see me in the box, and I don't like to see him on the mound. I don't think his name gets thrown out as much as it should. People don't realize how hard he throws, or how good his other stuff is to complement it."
Holland's exploits landed him a spot in the All-Star Game, where he spent several days stargazing and enjoying the opportunity to mingle with the game's elite. During a recent trip to Yankee Stadium, he got Rivera to sign a jersey for him. When Holland approached the Yankees great to say hello at Citi Field last weekend, he made sure to keep the conversation brief because he knew Rivera had a busy schedule.
Holland gives off a naturally humble vibe. A few hours before the All-Star Game, he stood in a corner of the visiting clubhouse and basked in the moment with a "what the heck am I doing here?" look on his face.
"It's been a rush," he said. "I'm just trying to slow this down a little bit and soak it in. You want to enjoy it and remember the experience, because it's hard to get here. To get one All-Star bid is awesome. You'll never know if you'll get another one."
Holland comes from Marion, N.C., a town of roughly 8,000 people with the motto, "Where Main Street Meets the Mountains." His father, Scott, installed windows for a living and played competitive softball on the weekends, and Greg and his brother, Chase, tagged along to watch.
Holland played at McDowell High School, in the same western North Carolina region that produced Cameron Maybin and Madison Bumgarner, and aspired to a career as a big league shortstop. He suffered a setback in his senior year when he was standing on first base and a pickoff throw from the catcher struck him in the face and broke his jaw.
With no interest from MLB teams in the draft and zero scholarship offers forthcoming, Holland walked on at Western Carolina University and settled in as a reliever with the Catamounts. He captured the attention of Steve Connelly, a former Royals scout who now works in the Toronto organization, and Kansas City chose him in the 10th round of the 2007 draft. Holland is the only player drafted and signed in that round who is currently in the majors.
It took faith and imagination for the Royals to project Holland as more than a setup man as he traversed the minor league chain. He threw hard, but had questionable command and needed to develop more consistency with his secondary pitches to keep hitters off his fastball -- which arrives at the plate on a relatively flat plane because of his vertically challenged stature.
"He was a down-the-line guy," said Mike Arbuckle, a senior adviser to Royals GM Dayton Moore. "All the ingredients made him a middle-round draft pick. He was only a reliever. He wasn't big. He wasn't a name guy. But that's where the scouts make a difference. We ought to know and be right on the first couple of picks. But it's those middle-round guys that your scouts push and say, 'We need to get this guy,' who make your organization."
The right temperament
Holland waited his turn behind Joakim Soria and Jonathan Broxton in Kansas City before embracing the opportunity to pitch in more high-leverage situations late last season. He finished the 2012 season with 16 saves and began this year as the Royals' closer. But he mixed in two clunkers in the first week, and some panic-stricken Royals watchers began advocating for manager Ned Yost to give Kelvin Herrera a shot.
Holland, meanwhile, projected an air of calm and an admirable ability to take things in stride.
"He struggled, but you never would have known it," Gordon said. "Everybody knew he was upset when he blew a save, but from the way he came into the clubhouse, it didn't look like it affected him one bit. He was very professional. He answered all the questions just like a closer is supposed to do."
Holland has the stuff to hang around a while. He throws his fastball at an average speed of 95.6 mph, not far below Chapman (97.7) and Kimbrel (96.6), and his slider has developed into a wipeout pitch. He complements those two offerings with a splitter that he throws about 5 percent of the time. Since 2011, lefty hitters are batting .184 against him, while righties check in at .211.
Because of Holland's velocity, hitters have to start the bat early to catch up with his fastball and routinely leave themselves vulnerable against his secondary pitches. He generates lots of sorry emergency hacks and nervous looks once he's ahead in the count.
"You have to sell out to get ready for that 100 [mph]," Kipnis said. "He threw a slider that bounced maybe six feet in front of the plate, and I swung and it bounced and hit my bat and went for a foul ball. I was laughing in the box. I was like, 'Geez, I was so bad I was good on that one.'"
Few hitters who step to the plate against Holland these days have the luxury of laughing at any point in the encounter. Feel free to call him "Dirty South," the pride of McDowell County or Craig Kimbrel's American League bookend. The Royals keep calling him in the ninth, and the result is almost always the same: good morning, good afternoon and good night.