Fearless Holder grabs MiLBY as top reliever

Yankees hurler dominates in return to bullpen, earns first MLB callup

Jonathan Holder had a 0.66 WHIP while holding opponents to a .160 batting average in 2016. (Andy Grosh/MiLB.com)

By Kelsie Heneghan / MiLB.com | October 28, 2016 10:00 AM

With a no-hitter on the line on April 26, Double-A Trenton pitching coach Jose Rosado had to quickly decide which reliever to bring in for the ninth inning. Because it was early in season, he didn't want to stretch out starter Ronald Herrera, so he looked to his bullpen.

"I had many, many options but I felt like Jonathan Holder was the guy who could help throw a no-no," Rosado said. "I didn't have any doubt when it happened."

While Holder -- who'd only pitched in three games with the Thunder at that point -- was a little nervous when his name was called, he took the mound without fear. Utilizing two strikeouts and a heads-up play on a comebacker, the Yankees prospect solidified his name in the record books and his place in the bullpen.

"When he came in, he was very relaxed -- he just went out there. He had the desire to take that challenge, and from that point on, he was our closer," Rosado said. "He was the guy who came in in big situations and he never panicked."

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Rosado continued to call on Holder, night after night, as the 23-year-old posted a 2.20 ERA in 28 outings with the Thunder en route to earning the Top Reliever MiLBY. The pitching coach said he was impressed with how many questions Holder asked, how much attention he paid to scouting reports and how easily he understood that throwing pitches wasn't the only key to pitching.

"It only took me a couple days when I started working with him in Double-A to know he was a big league pitcher," Rosado said. "He's mature and his work ethic reminded me of a guy who had played in the big leagues for 10 years."

While Rosado credited Holder's intellect for that maturity, the right-hander deflects the praise and points to his time at Mississippi State, where he was a reliever for three seasons.

"I feel like my college coaches did a great job of molding my mind into being a late-innings guy," Holder said. "It definitely helped me going forward through the whole year."

While on a recruiting trip in Starkville, Holder met another pitcher from Mississippi, Brandon Woodruff. A few months later, the two were sharing a dorm hall and a bench in the bullpen.

"You try to pick up some things from him," said the Brewers prospect "Him being a reliever all through college and going through those tough situations and getting out of them, that's very valuable information that helped me move forward in my career, so he helped me out a ton in that aspect."

Woodruff spent time as a starter at Mississippi State, always confident his lead would be preserved if he turned the ball over to Holder. The closer finished his college career ranked fourth in NCAA history with 37 saves while breaking the Bulldogs career mark and the Southeastern Conference single-season record of 21.

"Whenever you have Jonathan Holder coming in, it's always a good feeling because you pretty much know the door is going to be shut and he's not going to allow any runs to come in," said Woodruff, a MiLBY Top Starter nominee who is also up against Holder in the Best Individual Performance category. "When he gets on that mound, he's a totally different person. He goes from a laid-back guy to a guy you do not want to get into the box against."

Jonathan Holder set a Mississippi State record with 27 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings as a freshman in 2012. (Eric Francis/AP)

This offseason, Woodruff will be by his side again when Holder secures an even bigger win and gets married.

"We really have a good relationship," Woodruff said. "We're really close and anytime I can pick up the phone or he can call me, we can just have a normal conversation, doesn't have to be about baseball."

Holder was selected by the Yankees in the sixth round of the 2014 Draft, and Woodruff went in the 11th when the Brewers snagged him. Around that point, New York decided to move Holder into the rotation, where he would stay for his first two seasons.

In his first full year, Holder got comfortable in that role, posting a 2.52 ERA with 90 strikeouts over 118 innings in 21 starts across three levels, including Class A Advanced Tampa. While playing in the Florida State League for Brevard County, Woodruff was reminded of how tough a pitcher his friend was.

"Just seeing him coming from the bullpen and taking that same mentality as a starter, it really worked out well for him. He had some of the best numbers in the league," Woodruff said. "I think that really says a lot about Jonathan and what kind of pitcher he is. He can take that closer mentality to the starting pitcher role and really excel."

As dominant as he was, Holder was told the following spring that he would be returning to the bullpen.

"I came to Spring Training this year ready to be a starter and when I got there, I was told I would be working out of the 'pen," Holder recalled. "That brought me back to old times, and I was ready for it."

Holder returned to Tampa but was off to Trenton after only two games. Rosado watched as the 6-foot-2 hurler learned how to use his lower half more while maintaining his velocity with stellar results.

"He never had an outing that was a lost situation for him it was always a learning situation. Every single time it was like, 'Well, that's him, that's who he is,'" the former big league left-hander said. "It got to the point where even if he was in a tough situation, he was able to find a way to get the job done. And that's how a good player is able to develop into a championship-caliber player."

Holder's success with the Thunder led to a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But his stint with the RailRiders got off to an inauspicious start as he gave up a run on three hits over two innings in his International League debut.

"I had pitched well that night, so I was thinking positively after the game and saying, 'Hey, you know, if this [went] my way, then I'm one pitch away from getting out of there without a run,'" he recalled. "And it kind of gave me confidence going forward that I could succeed there... It's extremely important for a closer to be positive and very short-minded."

The tough debut faded away as Holder retired the next 19 batters he faced, striking out 10.

With that rhythm boosting his confidence, he finished the year with a 1.65 ERA, 101 strikeouts and 16 saves in 17 chances in 42 appearances. But it was Game 42 that stood out.

Because it was the end of the year, Holder was informed he was going to have an extended outing as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre bullpen was taxed.

"'Hey, I'll throw as much as I can,"' he remembered telling his coaches Aug. 28.

What he did was throw 53 pitches -- 41 for strikes -- while putting the perfect exclamation point on his Minor League season. Holder recorded 11 straight strikeouts and, after allowing a single to former Yankee John Ryan Murphy, fanned Byron Buxton to finish off the well-earned save.

Video: Holder strikes out 11 batters in a row

"I was just trying to stay out of my own way. I was trusting what my catcher was putting down and I was just trying to execute one pitch at a time," he said. "I was just excited that [the RailRiders] clinched, really. They had clinched the playoff spot that day, so we went inside and celebrated."

A few days later, Holder had his own personal celebration while in Buffalo for the Governors' Cup playoffs when he was told by manager Al Pedrique that he was being called up for his Major League debut.

"I was pretty shocked. He said, 'Hey, congratulations!' And I was like, 'Oh, man, wow! Are you serious?'" Holder recalled with a laugh.

While he was nervous getting to Camden Yards and putting on the Yankees uniform, the nerves disappeared once he stepped on the field. With his dad, Herbie, and brother, Justin, in the crowd, Holder took the mound against the Orioles on Sept. 2. He struck out Adam Jones, then retired Pedro Alvarez and Manny Machado in order.

When the Yankees returned to New York, Holder got a chance to soak in the experience a little more, taking time to FaceTime with Woodruff from a Times Square hotel.

Holder gave up five runs on seven hits and four walks over his next six innings, but he remained focused on what he gained from the experience and optimistic he'll succeed next time.

"It doesn't matter what we're doing, even if we're fishing like we did this past weekend, he thinks we're going to catch 50 fish. He's going to try as hard as he can to catch a fish," Woodruff said. "That's just the kind of person he is. He's always been like that.

"When he gets on the mound, he thinks he'll strike you out. He's never out of the fight 'til it's over."

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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