Perfect fit: Holland thriving in unanticipated role
An infielder early in career, righty becomes fourth Royals closer to reach 40 saves
KANSAS CITY -- Not that long ago, Greg Holland was a high school third baseman in North Carolina with his jaw wired shut after being hit during a pickoff attempt. Now, he's in the Major Leagues in a role he never would have predicted.
"I wanted to be a shortstop, but it didn't work out that way," Holland said. "I could have gone to a couple smaller colleges and played in the infield, but I don't really I think I had a future in that."
Certainly not the kind of future he's enjoying this season.
Holland notched his 42nd save, good for fourth place in the Majors, on Wednesday as the Royals beat the Indians, 6-2, and pulled to within two games of the American League's second Wild Card spot.
"It means that we are one step closer to where we want to go, which is the playoffs," Holland said. "I've always said that your personal accomplishments are something that you look at when your career is over. Hopefully it is something I can look back on and enjoy, but right now we're just concerned with giving ourselves the best chance to make the postseason."
A first-time All-Star, Holland is just the fourth closer in Royals history to reach the 40-save plateau, joining Joakim Soria, Jeff Montgomery and Dan Quisenberry.
Manager Ned Yost put a little more emphasis on the number.
"It's a huge number -- 40 saves puts you in the upper echelon," Yost said. "Anything past 35 puts you in the upper echelon for me, but he's one of the top closers in the game. His numbers bear that out."
Holland grew up watching his father, Scott, play softball, and he played catch with his brother. He attended McDowell High School in Marion, N.C., where he was named the team's co-MVP with a 5-4 record and a 3.41 ERA his senior season after accepting his new role as a pitcher. Holland stayed close to home and went to Western Carolina University, where he recorded 19 saves from 2005-07, ranking fifth in the program's history.
From there, Holland was selected in the 10th round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft by the Royals and rose through the ranks quickly, collecting his first Major League win on May 19, 2011, against Texas. By the end of the season, he also had his first Major League save, which he picked up on Aug. 3 against Baltimore.
Soria underwent Tommy John surgery during SpringTraining in 2012, and it came down to Holland, Aaron Crow or Jonathan Broxton for the closer spot. Broxton won the initial battle, but he was traded to Cincinnati midway through the season, and Holland got his chance.
"He has the ability to be a dominant pitcher with three different pitches. I think his fastball and his slider are pitches that, if executed, the opposing hitters have such little chance of success," Montgomery said. "When he has two pitches like that, it sets him apart from most everybody else. There are a few guys in the game that have two dominant pitches, but he has the ability to be dominant with two pitches. He's done an incredible job of understanding how to use those pitches effectively."
So effectively, in fact, that Holland has blown just five saves in 63 opportunities since taking over as full-time closer on July 31, 2012.
"He's been a lot of fun to watch," said Montgomery, now a Royals TV commentator. "I've used a lot of adjectives to describe him. He's been ridiculous. He's been filthy. He's been exciting. He's really been very enjoyable to watch, and it's been really great to see him progress to where he has at a very early stage in his career."
Holland credits Montgomery for helping him find his pitching personality when he's on the mound.
"Having a guy like Monty here, and getting to see him and talk with him and share some thoughts with him is really cool, especially when you know what kind of person he is outside of baseball," Holland said. "Other than just talking pitching, I think we're kind of similar. He's not the biggest guy either, but he went out there and competed, and he was a fastball-slider guy, but he attacked the zone. We talk pitching as far as what your thought process is in some situations."
Montgomery said he tries to put himself in the situation and question Holland's choices as well as offering advice from his 11 years of experience as a closer for the Royals.
"He doesn't need to reinvent the wheel, he has everything there," Montgomery said. "The other good thing is, in the role he is pitching in, he doesn't have to be concerned about players figuring him out, because they're not going to see him. They're going to see him three times a season instead of three times a night."
With Holland's consistency in the back of the bullpen, the offense considers it almost a sure win when it can get him a lead in the ninth inning.
"He's been lights out all year," first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "Pretty much every time he comes in, it's a great feeling. He's had some big saves in big situations he's come in. He's fearless out there, and that's what you need in a closer. He's got the perfect mentality for it, and he's the right guy for the job."
Even though Holland never really pictured himself as a pitcher, his success this season hasn't fazed him.
"I imagined myself being successful in the big leagues, because that is what I strived for. Actual numbers and goals I don't think is something you can aspire for," Holland said. "You just want to be as good as you can be, prepare as well as you can and help the team win games."
Kathleen Gier is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.