Meet the Mets' unknown flame-throwing reliever
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Of the 40 players remaining in Mets spring training, one is a 6-7, 240-pound flame-throwing righthanded reliever who has struck out more than half of the batters he has faced, wowing team officials and wedging himself into the major-league picture for 2022 — if he can keep this up.
And you probably have never heard of him.
Meet Colin Holderman.
“He’s got my attention, our attention,” manager Buck Showalter said Wednesday night after Holderman hit 99.5 mph with his sinker and collected two strikeouts in a scoreless inning against the Astros. “Verifying what people have told me about his potential. He’s been good.”
Holderman is not highly regarded by the prospect-ranking public — he isn’t among the Mets’ top 30 minor-leaguers according to MLB Pipeline, for example — in part because he is a reliever and in part because he is 26 years old, both of which are demerits in such calculations.
But he is younger professionally than his age would suggest. Since 2016, when the Mets drafted him in the ninth round out of Heartland Community College in Norman, Illinois, he has totaled only 146 innings in a stop-and-start career, missing entire seasons due to Tommy John surgery (2018) and the COVID-19 pandemic (2020) as well as additional chunks of time due to a torn labrum and other injuries.
The pre-pandemic version of Holderman threw in the low-to-mid 90s — at best.
“When I was not healthy, some 88s and struggling for some 90s,” he said. “As of recently, I’ve been very happy with my velocity.”
The change came in 2020, when the pandemic caused the cancellation of the minor-league season. He was working out with other pros, including the Dodgers’ Gavin Lux, and communicating from afar with Ricky Meinhold, then the Mets’ pitching coordinator.
“I wasn’t using my legs at all. I was literally just throwing kind of like an idiot,” Holderman said. “That’s why I was hurt a lot. I was a hitter for a long time. I used my legs when I hit. And Ricky Meinhold just told me to ride that back leg and keep the hip hinge. That’s when I saw the big jump.”
Meinhold now coaches the Lotte Giants of the KBO in South Korea. He told Newsday that player development staff realized Holderman wasn't efficient in his delivery, which caused him to struggle with velocity and the quality of his pitches.
They basically had him move his body better.
"We simply shared with him a few things pertaining to him being his best athlete he could be, learned and taught him more of his identity as a pitcher and he went to work," Meinhold said. "What we are seeing is someone who trusted us, believed he could accomplish it and now has changed the trajectory of his career. Pretty neat to see."
Those improvements did the trick.
“I had to grunt to get 94 [mph],” Holderman said. “The next day I was up to 98. It was that instantaneous.”
That boost served him well in 2021, when he compiled a 3.38 ERA, struck out more than a batter per inning and dabbled with being a closer for Double-A Binghamton and High-A St. Lucie (in pitching just 24 innings).
But when he struggled in the Arizona Fall League, posting an 8.71 ERA in 11 appearances, the Mets opted not to add him to the 40-man roster, exposing him to the Rule 5 draft — the annual December process in which clubs can pluck unprotected minor-leaguers from other farm systems, with the caveat that that player needs to remain on the major-league roster for the entire following season.
For players like Holderman, who have toiled in the minors and probably wouldn’t receive a near-term shot at the majors otherwise, the Rule 5 draft can offer potential life-changing opportunity. But it never happened. Because of the lockout MLB imposed on its players, freezing all major-league transactions, the draft was postponed and then canceled altogether.
Instead, Holderman is still with the Mets, in big-league camp for the first time. In four Grapefruit League innings, he has allowed no earned runs and struck out nine of 16 batters he has faced. He has been getting whiffs on all three of his pitches: sinker (averaging in the upper 90s), slider and changeup.
“I tried not to [pay attention to the fate of the Rule 5 draft], but obviously you’re going into a big thing,” Holderman said. “Maybe someone would’ve taken me and I would’ve had a full year possibly on the roster. But I’m happy where I’m at. This team is unbelievable. Seeing what they do every day, this team has a chance to make a real run. And that’s where I want to be at the end of the day.
“There’s always a journey to get to the big leagues. But that’s not the final goal. I want to win the World Series. I can definitely see this team doing that.”