Aaron Boone Needs to Stop Treating Jonathan Holder Like an Elite Reliever

The Yankees' right-hander doesn't belong in situations with the game on the line

You didn’t need to go to the bathroom or take a shower or get a beer. If you blinked, you might have missed Masahiro Tanaka erase a four-run lead in the fifth inning on Thursday night in Anaheim. Two starts ago, Tanaka blew a four-run lead to the White Sox by giving up a grand slam and this time he blew it with a pair of two-run home runs.

Tied 4-4 heading to the bottom of the sixth, Aaron Boone let Tanaka put two more baserunners on and with two outs, he finally went to his bullpen. With runners on first and second and a right-handed hitter up, I expected to see Adam Ottavino. Ottavino had made only two appearances and thrown 46 pitches over the last six days and this might be the highest-leverage situation the game would have. His slider repertoire against a light-hitting, right-handed 8-hitter? It was about as perfect of a matchup as you could ask for to get out of the inning. Boone didn’t think so, most likely opting to save Ottavino for later in the game, once again allowing the inning and not the situation determine which reliever he uses. Boone instead went to his personal favorite: Jonathan Holder.

Holder quickly got ahead of David Fletcher 0-1. Gary Sanchez then called for a slider and flipped his glove over expecting a slider low and away, but Holder threw a fastball, surprising Sanchez and getting by him to allow the runners to move up to second and third. A single now didn’t mean one run, it meant two, and sure enough, Holder missed his spot on the 2-2 pitch and gave up the inevitable two-run single.

I wasn’t surprised Holder allowed both inherited runners to score, effectively losing the game. I expected it. The moment YES panned to him walking out of the bullpen I knew what was going to happen. I feel like you shouldn’t expect the worst out of a reliever the organization continues to trust with games on the line, but there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense with the Aaron Boone Yankees.

Last season, Holder blew the the third game of the season when he allowed an inherited runner to score and followed that up by allowing six earned runs in his next two appearances over 2 1/3 innings, which forced him to Triple-A. Upon his return, Holder pitched to a 0.88 ERA over his next 35 games and 41 innings with hitters batting .148/.196/.230 against him.

Holder’s stock dramatically rose on May 9 when he entered in the eighth inning against the Red Sox at the Stadium with the Yankees trailing 6-5. Chasen Shreve left Holder with runners on second and third and one out (because of course he did) and Holder was able to get out of the inning unscathed. The Yankees scored four runs in the bottom of the inning and went on to win 9-6.

Despite Holder’s improbable run, I still didn’t trust him in a big spot, even if Aaron Boone and the organization did. On August 2 in Boston, my feelings toward for Holder were justified.

In the first game of the pivotal four-game series in Boston, the Yankees held a 4-2 lead heading into the bottom of the fourth. CC Sabathia had labored through three innings, throwing 77 pitches and putting seven runners on base, so Boone made the right decision to go to his bullpen to begin the fourth inning, but made the wrong decision of who he was going to: Holder.

Holder’s three-month stretch had earned him important innings and none to date would be more important than the ones he was about to pitch. The Yankees were trailing the Red Sox by 5 1/2 games in the division, needing to win the series to even think about winning the division over the final two months of the season.

Holder entered and walked the nearly-impossible-to-walk 9-hitter Jackie Bradley on five pitches. After that, what unfolded was the single worst relief appearance I have ever seen and will likely ever see in a Major League Baseball game. Including, the walk to Bradley, here’s how Holder’s appearance went:

Bradley walks
Mookie Betts doubles, Bradley to third
Andrew Benintendi reaches on fielder’s choice to pitcher, Bradley scores, Betts to third
Benintendi steals second
Steve Pearce three-home run
J.D. Martinez doubles
Ian Kinsler singles, Martinez scores
Kinsler steals second
Eduardo Nunez doubles, Kinsler scores

Holder faced seven batters and didn’t retire one of them, giving up four extra-base hits and seven runs and likely needed to change his underwear after being consumed by the Fenway Park crowd in the biggest game of the season. With a chance to get back in the division race for the last time, Holder rewarded the Yankees with a performance fitting of his level of trust to everyone outside the organization. His line for the game: 0 IP, 5 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1 HR.

This season, Holder has been his usual self, which is the self the Yankees don’t feel he truly is. Rather than recognizing his three-month run last season as an unfathomable overachievement like we have seen in the past from a reliever like Brian Bruney or starters like Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon, the Yankees believe Holder is their next elite reliever, and they keep treating him as if he’s already one.

Holder’s line this season: 13.1 IP, 15 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 15 K, 2 HR, 5.40 ERA, 1.350 WHIP. He has made nine appearances this season, giving up earned runs in six of them and allowing four of six inherited runners to score.

I don’t trust Jonathan Holder, but it’s not his fault. The reason I don’t trust him is because I’m forced to in big spots and high-leverage situations, and he’s not that kind of reliever, rarely ever coming through. He’s good (at times), but he’s certainly not great, and he’s certainly not worthy of the spots Boone keeps using him in.

With Chad Green being sent down after Tuesday’s win, the Yankees are already down one formerly trustworthy reliever, leaving them with only Ottavino, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman until Dellin Betances returns. Unfortunately, there will be high-leverage situations in which Boone won’t go to his best relievers (for illogical reasons, like trying to prevent injuries which aren’t preventable or continuing to manage to the inning and not the situation), but he can’t go to Holder. Tommy Kahnle has started to look more like his 2017 self and Luis Cessa has proven he’s better suited as a reliever than a starter in the majors, and I now trust those two more than I do Holder.

Eventually, Boone and the Yankees will realize Holder isn’t their next 2017 Green and he’s nowhere near the level of Ottavino or Britton, let alone Betances. They just need to realize it before it costs them more games.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!