By John Perrotto
One of the best relief pitchers in baseball can walk the street in any American League road city and never get recognized.
No one bothers him at dinner. No one stops him as he leaves the ballpark and asks to have a picture taken with him.
Greg Holland has 42 saves for the Royals, and outside Kansas City, he draws about as much notice as the local game warden, which is the career path he would have taken if baseball hadn't turned out far better than anyone would have had the right to expect for a small-town kid from Marion, N.C., who did not receive one scholarship offer following his senior year of high school.
"I can pretty much go anywhere without being recognized," he said a smile. "I'm not a guy looking for publicity anyway."
Indeed, Holland isn't flashy. He doesn't make a grand entrance into games at Kauffman Stadium like Mariano Rivera does at Yankee Stadium or Trevor Hoffman did in San Diego for so many years.
Holland is just an average-sized 27-year-old man with a healthy beard befitting of an outdoorsman, whose most distinguishing feature is the drawl of a native North Carolinian. He never has to worry about wearing a disguise, except on Halloween.
Yet no major-league player is having a better season who is so unknown.
Holland has been dominant and is one of the main reasons why the Royals have quietly moved into contention for their first playoff berth since winning the World Series in 1985. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder has converted 93.3 percent of his save opportunities, posted a 1.35 ERA in 61 games, and has allowed just 36 hits and 14 walks in 60 innings while striking out 93.
The advanced statistics mesh with the traditional ones, too. Holland has a 1.30 FIP and 1.48 xFIP, according to FanGraphs.com, showing his dominance hasn't been fluky. His 2.9 WAR is second on the Royals behind only left fielder Alex Gordon (3.3).
Yet even Holland's one brush with fame got muted back in July. He was selected to the All-Star Game, but only as an injury replacement, and threw ⅓ of an inning, allowing a single to David Wright.
The main reason Holland has gone so unnoticed is because playing for the Royals is akin to being in baseball's version of the witness protection program. They play in a small market -- albeit with terrific barbeque and friendly people -- and rarely play on national television.
They haven't have a winning season since 2003, and only two since 1994. They have undergone so many rebuilding efforts since winning it all for the only time in franchise history 28 years ago that the only people outside Kansas City who could often name more than five players on the Royals' roster were long-time subscribers of Baseball America.
"Winning teams get recognized," Holland said. "We haven't won anything in a long time but we're working on it."
The Royals are still fighting for a playoff spot with just 16 games left in the season. At 77-69, the Royals are just two games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild card, though they also trail the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians in the chase.
The bullpen has been the Royals' strong point this season, as Kansas City's 2.59 relief ERA leads the AL. Holland has been ably set up by left-hander Tim Collins and right-handers Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera, among others.
"We've got a good bullpen altogether and we think of ourselves as a unit instead of individuals," Holland said. "We're always there to pick each other up and we take pride in the fact that we feel we can get big outs, whether it's the sixth inning, the ninth inning, the 12th inning, whenever. We feel when the starting pitchers leaves with a lead that we're going to win the game. I'm the one that gets the saves but a lot of us get meaningful outs. That's why we're winning."
The Royals usually win the game whenever manager Ned Yost calls on Holland.
"He's very quiet," Yost said. "He's very intense and has a great competitive spirit but he also shows great composure on the mound. Nothing rattles him."
Considering his backstory, it is not a surprise that Holland is so humble and composed.
As a senior at McDowell High School in Marion, N.C., a town with a population of 8,000, Holland threw in the mid-80s. That didn't excite professional scouts or college coaches.
So he enrolled at Western Carolina University and decided to major in natural resource management and walk on to the baseball team. As a nod to his roots, "walk on" remains part of his email address.
Holland was almost cut on three different occasions because other players had more talent. However, the Western Carolina coaching staff was so impressed with his work ethic that they stuck with him. The payoff came in his junior year when he had 10 saves, led the Catamounts to the Southern Conference title and impressed the Royals enough to be selected in the 10th round of that year's amateur draft.
Holland thinks back to how far he has come since those first days on the campus in Cullowhee, N.C., and smiles.
"I was young back then and obviously I thought I could get guys out in the big leagues but you don't realize what goes into that at the time," Holland said. "I was always confident in my ability, though, and I always felt I could succeed. I always thought I would be here but I had to learn how to succeed."
Just like in college, it took Holland a while before he was successful in the major leagues. And just like in college, Holland always believed he would succeed.
Holland first reached the majors in 2010 and had a 6.75 ERA in 15 appearances. However, he followed that with a successful winter ball season in Venezuela in which he had 35 strikeouts in just 19 innings.
Since then, he has registered 62 saves with a 2.07 ERA in 174 games while striking out 258 and walking 67 in 187 innings over the last three seasons.
"His first year, he had great stuff but he was all over the place with his pitches," Yost said. "You were hoping he'd throw strikes eventually but you didn't know. When he came back from winter ball, he was a completely different pitcher. His command changed overnight."
Holland knows it would make for a better story if he could tell a tale of an epiphany that suddenly turned him into a dominant pitcher. However, befitting of his personality, Holland has worked to accumulate a database of pitching knowledge over time.
"I've taken every piece of advice I've gotten from coaches and players, especially players because you can get some really good insights from them, and tried to use it all to make myself better both mentally and physically," Holland said.
Holland became the Royals' closer last August after Jonathan Broxton was traded to Cincinnati. Though Holland never necessarily aspired to be the closer -- "I think any relief pitcher's goal is to be in situations where you get important outs, whatever inning that happened to be in" -- he felt he was mentally prepared after being teammates with Broxton and Joakim Soria, two All-Star closers.
"It wasn't so much what they said to me but what I saw them do," Holland said. "Both of them put the time in. They'd be at the ballpark five hours before the game, getting treatment, preparing for the game that night.
"When I first came up, I'd go out on the mound like my hair was on fire, but I learned from those guys that you have to stay with the moment. If you didn't get the last guy out, put it in the past and worry about getting the next guy out, then the next guy after that out."
That simple approach has enabled him to become a top-flight closer, if not a famous one yet.
"The guys on the team know they can count on me to give my best effort every time I'm called on.
Holland said. "That's the most important kind of recognition as far as I'm concerned."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.