Olney: Why Greg Holland was the best free-agent signing of the offseason

Greg Holland has allowed one homer among just 10 hits in 23 2/3 innings, and he is 23-for-23 in save chances in his first season back following Tommy John surgery in 2015. Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

There was a lot of anticipation among scouts for Greg Holland's first spring training outing in a Colorado Rockies uniform, and there was a lot of mystery. Holland had thrown for scouts in November, as he neared the end of his summer of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery, and in the opinion of many who were there, he did not look good. His fastball velocity was way down from his days with the Kansas City Royals, with some teams clocking him in the mid-80s.

As such, there was some surprise when the Rockies signed Holland before he hosted another army of scouts, and the incentive-laden contract had more earning power than expected by some rival executives. In the mind of some in the industry, Colorado had bet heavily on a pitcher, far more than others would have based on that workout.

But Holland looked good in that first spring training outing, and through the first 40 percent of the 2017 season, Holland has pitched exceptionally -- so good that he seems to be a shoe-in for the National League All-Star team and could be considered the best signing of the winter free-agent class (other nominees are listed below).

Holland has allowed one home run among just 10 hits in 23 2/3 innings, and he is 23-for-23 in save chances, the sort of performance that Rockies evaluators have only dreamed about through the team's tepid history of pitching.

"At the end of the day, it was a calculated risk," Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said in a phone conversation Saturday. "A calculated risk we needed to take."

Holland's agent, Scott Boras, assumed that the best offers for his client would develop after the big three free-agent closers came off the board -- Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. As the game of free-agent musical chairs played out and the big three signed, the Washington Nationals and the Rockies were the teams with the greatest need for a closer. Washington's ownership wasn’t ready to commit the kind of money that Boras discussed.

The Rockies, on the other hand, went all-in learning about Holland as a person. Steve Foster, the Rockies' pitching coach, knew Holland from when both were in the Royals’ organization and vouched for both the pitcher’s character and his competitiveness. That Holland emerged as the closer at the back end of a bullpen that included the talented Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera said a lot about Holland, Bridich thought. The Rockies were aware that Holland even tried to pitch through a torn elbow ligament in 2015, as Kansas City worked to get back to the World Series.

The Rockies also had a unique evaluation weapon in bullpen coach Darren Holmes, who, like Holland, lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Holmes’ pitching personality during his career was very similar to Holland's: no messing around, all business, attack the hitters. Plus, Holmes could relate to the particular challenges of pitching at Coors Field. Holmes and Holland talked and texted, and their communication served as another layer of understanding about Holland.

"He’s a regular, hard-working Asheville, North Carolina, baseball player," Bridich said. "I know he's got the trust of everybody -- and he's got the trust in spades. This is a man who is hell-bent on getting back to where he was before he was hurt."

The Rockies saw Holland in a long-toss session in January, confirmation for them that he was healthy. Boras and Bridich negotiated an unusual deal that provided the Rockies some protection in the event that Holland got hurt but also gave Holland a chance to be paid well. Holland got $6 million in base salary and $1 million guaranteed in a possible buyout of his 2018 deal, but if Holland accumulated 30 games finished or pitched in 50 games, the 2018 contract would vest into a 2017 player option for $15 million.

Holland already has 25 games finished, and his 2018 player option should vest by the end of the month. On May 21, he picked up an extra $1 million for his 20th game finished. There is an $8 million maximum for performance bonus this year, which he could build two ways. He gets $500,000 each for 30, 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55 pitching appearances. For games finished, he gets $1 million apiece for 20 and 30 and $2 million each for 40, 50 and 60.

It’s possible that he’ll make $35 million in his two-year deal with the Rockies, and with Colorado in first place and Holland serving as "shade" -- to use Boras' word -- over the rest of what is a young pitching staff, the team ranks 10th in ERA.

Here are some other nominees for best free-agent signing of the winter:

2. Ivan Nova, Pittsburgh Pirates

Three years, $26 million

In 12 starts, he has a 3.04 ERA with only seven walks in 83 innings.

3. Logan Morrison, Tampa Bay Rays

One year, $2.5 million

Because of his command of the strike zone and his willingness to take a walk, Morrison has long been seen as a hitter with untapped potential. But this year, the 29-year-old Morrison seems to be putting it all together: He has 10 doubles and 17 homers, an .893 OPS and an adjusted OPS+ of 143. The high volume of first base/corner outfield/DH types greatly depressed the prices on this group of players during the winter, and it might be that the Rays got the best bargain of the lot.

4. Mitch Moreland, Boston Red Sox

One year, $5.5 million

He has given Boston just about everything it hoped for with the signing: some left-handed thump (an OPS of .858) and good defense at first base. He’s on pace for 46 doubles and 84 runs.

5. Koji Uehara, Chicago Cubs

One year, $6 million

Nobody can give a sound explanation for how the 42-year-old Uehara can pass his mediocre fastball through the middle of the strike zone without it being obliterated. But he keeps doing it over and over. He has 25 strikeouts and only five walks in 20 1/3 innings.

6. Matt Holliday, New York Yankees

One year, $13 million

He has been very productive for the Yankees, with 23 extra-base hits and 27 walks so far. For Aaron Judge, Holliday’s arrival was perfectly timed to provide a big-bodied teammate who is very serious about hitting to act as a sounding board on mechanics and approach. The Yankees are so loaded with outfield/DH options in the big leagues and in their farm system that it seems unlikely they’ll bring Holliday back -- certainly not at the current rate -- but for 2017, the investment in him has been spectacular.

7. Matt Wieters, Washington Nationals

One year, $10.5 million, with a $10.5 million player option for 2018

He has stepped into the vacancy created by the departure of Wilson Ramos and has contributed offensively and defensively.

8. Charlie Morton, Houston Astros

Two years, $14 million

Morton is currently on the disabled list, but he started well, with his fastball velocity at a career high. The Astros encouraged Morton to throw really hard early in the game, with less concern about pitching deep into his outings, and this sprinter’s approach has worked for Morton: He’s 5-3 with a 4.06 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings.

9. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Five years, $80 million

This signing is different than some of the others on the list in its enormity, and after the Dodgers’ agreements with Rich Hill and Justin Turner, there was surprise that L.A. would extend itself to this level. But Jansen has been incredible so far this season, with 41 strikeouts, no walks and just one homer (Justin Bour of the Marlins) in 24 1/3 innings.

Around the league

  • The left side of Mookie Betts's top lip curls into a sneer each time he comes to the plate, as if he’s staring down the pitcher and daring him to throw a fastball through the strike zone. But Betts said that he was not aware of the sneer until after he began playing in the big leagues and fans posted the image on Twitter. Betts’s mother told him that he has been making the same expression since he was a little kid.

    Betts and the Red Sox will play against the Tigers on Sunday Night Baseball. Boston’s Drew Pomeranz pitches against Daniel Norris, who has done better at controlling his emotions, in the eyes of Detroit manager Brad Ausmus -- the same kind of challenge that the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez has had early in his career.

  • Miguel Cabrera is the creator of two of the eight plate appearances nominated for the greatest at-bat in the past 30 years in this week’s poll question. Sitting at his locker at Fenway Park on Saturday afternoon, Cabrera said that before his epic at-bat against Roger Clemens in the 2003 World Series, he had been warned that The Rocket might try to pitch him up and in -- the manner in which Clemens tried to intimidate young (and old) hitters. This is exactly what Clemens tried to do against Cabrera, then 20 years old, and the video of the at-bat shows Cabrera staring angrily out at the pitcher; he was intent on not giving away anything in the strike zone.

    "I expected he was going to do that," Cabrera said. A few pitches later, Cabrera belted a monster opposite field home run to help the Marlins win the World Series in six games against the Yankees. This was my choice for the best at-bat of the past 30 years.

    Cabrera's current rankings among active players in some major offensive categories:

  • Brad Ausmus is well-versed in analytics, but there are parts that he disagrees with, such as the notion that you should use your best reliever in the biggest point in the game.

    "Who the [bleep] knows when the biggest point in the game is until the game is over?" Ausmus asked rhetorically, mentioning that it's possible that he could use his best reliever in the eighth and then face the biggest moment of the game in the ninth. "If somebody has that crystal ball, please, send it my way.

    "What if the biggest moment is in the first inning? Should I use my closer in the first inning?"

    A reporter mentioned the idea that any major league reliever could be suited to pitch the ninth inning. Ausmus gestured to the desk in front of him and asked the reporter, “Could you walk across this desk?”

    Yes, the reporter answered.

    "What if I raised it 1,000 feet?" Ausmus said. "Could you walk across it then? Because that’s the difference between pitching in the sixth inning and pitching in the ninth inning. Anybody who says it’s the same is out of their mind."

  • Another example of how the pitch-framing numbers might have a lot to do with the quality of the pitching staff: In 2015, Chris Iannetta was one of the highest-rated catchers in this particular skill, and in 2016, he fell to eighth-worst. Now with the Diamondbacks, he’s near the top of the list, at 11th-best.

    The No. 1-ranked catcher now is Tyler Flowers, who works with an Atlanta staff that has the second-lowest average fastball velocity. This is a common denominator for the best catchers in the pitch-framing metrics. Last year, Buster Posey was the leader, and the Giants had the fifth-lowest average fastball velocity.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

On the podcast this week:

Call To the Legends: An interview with 2017 Hall of Fame inductee Tim Raines, who discusses the highs and lows of his career and how Andre Dawson helped him work through his personal problem in the mid-80s.

Friday: Karl Ravech and Justin Havens on the Cardinals’ problems and the struggles of Gerrit Cole; Yankees GM Brian Cashman; Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald on David Price's confrontation with the Boston media; and Marly Rivera on the Yankees.

Thursday: Tim Beckham of the Rays; Boog Sciambi on the Indians, Mariners and the possibility of an electronic strike zone; and Bob Nightengale of USA Today on teams at a buy or sell tipping point.

Wednesday: Astros manager A.J. Hinch on the development of Carlos Correa, George Springer and Lance McCullers Jr.; Tim Kurkjian on Scooter Gennett and Masahiro Tanaka; and Alex Speier of the Boston Globe.

Tuesday: Keith Law on the unstoppable Astros and Kyle Schwarber; Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham on his remarkable path to the big leagues and the eyesight problem that was diagnosed 10 years ago; and Sarah Langs plays the Numbers Game.

Monday: Schwarber discusses his season; Jerry Crasnick on the 600th homer of Albert Pujols; Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz.

And today will be better than yesterday.