Blazing A Trail
Fireballing Holland has risen through Rangers' prospect ranks
Before the curtain rose on this season, before he would be handed an airline ticket and sent off into his first full year in pro ball, Derek Holland milled about within the Rangers' minor league spring training camp and figured he was just another hopeful.
Clearly, he stood in the collective shadow of other pitching prospects—names such as Hurley, Feliz, Main, Beavan, Harrison and Hunter. Those were just a few of the arms ranked among the Rangers' Top 30 prospects coming into the season, with Holland just on the fringe, listed as a potential sleeper.
At times, though, teammates leaned over and encouraged Holland that he could very well be held in high regard, too. But the 21-year-old lefthander and 2007 draft-and-follow signee wondered if they were only being polite.
To him, it was nice praise, but no reason to thump his chest. After all, Holland had spent the offseason working for $7 an hour at a local sporting goods store back home in Ohio, safeguarding a six-figure signing bonus. He was not far removed from Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala., the program that took a flier on him in the fall of 2005.
"Just because they think I might be a prospect, that doesn't mean anything in my eyes," Holland said. "I've still got a lot to prove. I had to go out and show people stuff."
Turned out, Holland grabbed the season by the throat and never loosened a stubbornly tight grip, as the lefthander rocketed to prospect status with one of the most stunning seasons in the minors.
The stats? Try 13-1, 2.27 with 157 strikeouts in 1502⁄3 innings. Along the way, he issued 40 walks and yielded just three home runs while handcuffing batters with a .209 average.
And to think that Holland ended the season in the Texas League playoffs with Double-A Frisco after opening at low Class A Clinton and making a brief whistle stop at high Class A Bakersfield. Two impressive postseason starts further bolstered his growing reputation, with a 1-1, 0.44 mark in which he struck out 18 in 202⁄3 innings.
No, there is no other way to put it—Holland looks like a steal after being drafted in the 25th round in 2006.
"He's pretty good," said Northwest Arkansas manager Brian Poldberg, whose team was one of Holland's late-season victims. "He and (Josh) Outman from Midland are two guys that would probably move quick. I don't think we're going to see him next year."
Thanks to a 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame, Holland pounded the zone with a fastball that sat roughly 93-94 mph, topping out at 98 once.
A slider with nice tilt proved as much a weapon, and he enhanced it all by showing a feel for a changeup.
From his arm came 15 quality starts in 25 chances, including four with Frisco. Holland also struck out at least eight in seven outings.
Few tears, then, will be shed if the Texas League turns out to be another pit stop.
"I don't think we were surprised. We felt like going into the season he had a chance to do something special," Rangers pitching coordinator Rick Adair said. "The consistency of his command and the fact he has gotten stronger and pitched deep into ballgames have been impressive."
Adair added, "I saw (Scott) Kazmir in Double-A in 2004. There are a lot of similarities in terms of stuff."
It's All About Tempo
A point of emphasis this season was his slider as well as tempo. Because his fastball naturally cuts, Adair encouraged Holland to smooth out a herky-jerky delivery with his slider, allowing the lefty to snap it off at the last second. "It was more of a lollipop kind of thing," Holland said.
Even better, his game tempo jumbled hitters' comfort zones. It was an edict in the Rangers system this year.
"Derek's probably the model of what we're wanting to do, eliminate time between pitches," Adair said. "He's at between 12 to 15 seconds between pitches. Our emphasis is using your tempo as a weapon."
Through all of this, Holland acknowledged that he has surprised himself. For one thing, he was throwing 88-89 in college.
"It's kind of amazing. My velocity has jumped unbelievably and, no, I'm not on steroids," Holland said. "I've just worked really, really hard. In the offseason, I pushed my body to the limit."
Back in his hometown of Newark, Ohio, a community east of Columbus, Holland hit the gym when he wasn't working at the sporting goods store. Leg presses and one-legged squats built muscle strength necessary to survive the grind of a 140-game schedule.
That he showed durability comes as no surprise to Randy Putnam, Wallace State's coach who took on a pair of Ohio players at the urging of Mac Seibert, then a Rays crosschecker and one of his former high school players.
However, Holland was more of a throw-in.
When Seibert spotted him at a Baseball Factory tournament in January 2005 in Arizona, Holland did not yet feature the broad shoulders and thin waist ideal for a big league pitcher.
"He was just a little skinny lefty, threw strikes and had a changeup," Seibert said. "But I could see he was a competitor. He had a really good changeup and kept going right after hitters. He only pitched a couple of innings, but he knew how to pitch."
Wallace State, located a half hour north of Birmingham and an NJCAA World Series qualifier six times from 1992 to 2006, planted the seeds to his baseball growth.
"We have a Green Beret-type training program," said Putnam, now in his 20th year at the Alabama juco. The program stresses flexibility. "It's intense and when they come out of here . . . no, when they crawl out of here, they've gotten a lot stronger."
Under The Radar
Holland mostly flew under the radar his freshman season. In fact, it wasn't until after the 2006 Juco World Series when the Rangers, acting on a tip by scout Rick Schroeder, thought the lefty might be worth a second-day draft selection.
Texas had issued an APB that spring for scouts to sniff out lefthanders who could be funneled into its draft haul. The Rangers selected 11 southpaws that June, led by first-round pick Kasey Kiker. Six signed, with Holland eventually signing for $200,000 as the draft-and-follow after the 2007 amateur season.
His body maturing through his freshman season, Holland had piqued the Rangers' interest after pitching twice against Yavapai (Ariz.) JC in the Juco World Series. He threw a complete game, eight-hitter in his first start, and in 141⁄3 total innings he allowed eight earned runs on 15 hits, 12 strikeouts and five walks.
Later that next season, in 2007, as Holland struck out 10.17 per nine innings and owned a 1.80 ERA, the task of tracking Holland fell to Rangers scout Jeff Wood.
"I told (Wood), 'I don't know what you've got to do, but if you let him go back in the draft, he's going to go in the top five rounds," Putnam said. "Derek was the best big game pitcher I've ever coached."
Wood acknowledged that he feared Holland might reject the Rangers' offer, worrying that the lefthander realized a number of scouts trailed him late his sophomore season. Wood evaluated Holland six times that spring.
"He just kept getting better and better and, by the end of the season, he was was popping 93 on the gun," Wood said.
But Wood had reason to be optimistic: The lefthander often sent text messages to provide occasional updates, or just to say hello.
"That's the cool part about him," Wood said. "He's a free-spirit kind of kid. But when it comes to stepping on the diamond, he sets his goals high."