New York Yankees relief pitcher Clay Holmes (35) throws during...

New York Yankees relief pitcher Clay Holmes (35) throws during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Saturday May 21, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) Credit: AP/Bebeto Matthews

There’s an old video of Clay Holmes that pops up first when you Google him and his sinker, his long hair and beard quickly indicating it was filmed when he was still a Pirate. He talks for about a minute, showing where his middle finger juts up against the seam of the baseball, and how changing the positioning of his index finger affects movement.

It’s short, sweet and simplified, but also based on 400 years of scientific developments that date back to Isaac Newton being conked on the head with an apple.

But that’s the type of juxtaposition you get when you consider Holmes who, just a year ago, was a forgettable reliever with plenty of potential and is now one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. He throws two pitches, a sinker and a slider, and relies on the sinker 80% of the time; and even though everyone knows what’s coming, no one can really hit it the way they want.

Along the way, he’s become the most valuable arm in the Yankees bullpen – a position that’s mostly due to his dominance but also due to necessity: three of their relievers hit the injured list in the span of a week. He was already outperforming Aroldis Chapman when Chapman went on the IL with an Achilles injury – something that makes his natural ascension to closer all that easier (Aaron Boone says he’s still doing closer by committee).

“That’s one of the nastiest pitches in baseball,” Boone said of Holmes’ sinker, and he might’ve been understating it a touch. According to Baseball Savant, Holmes has the best sinker in the game, with a run value of -9 and, as of Tuesday, it was second overall only to Justin Verlander’s fastball. It averages in at 96.3 mph – almost 4-mph less than Chapman’s – but it has 17 inches of run along with 24 inches of drop, and has helped him to a groundball rate of over 80%. Going into Tuesday’s game against the Orioles, he hadn’t allowed an earned run in his last 20 appearances and his 22-inning scoreless streak was the longest in the majors. He has a 0.40 ERA.

But in order to understand how the early 2021 version of Clay Holmes – the one who pitched to a 4.93 ERA with the Pirates – turned into the Yankee version of Clay Holmes, you have to look at the man himself.

“For a guy that throws 80% of the same pitch, it’s kind of crazy to think he’s probably our most analytically inclined pitcher just in terms of understanding spin and seam orientation and where his hand is to create the effects that he wants,” pitching coach Matt Blake said. “I think he’s really inquisitive and he processes information really well.”

For one, Holmes has been an eager adopter of fresh data, including the analysis of seam-shifted wake, a newly theorized phenomenon that looks to quantify how the orientation of baseball seams through air affects movement. Movement through spin is nothing new, and neither is movement through grip, but certain shifts in grip – like using the seams so that air interacts with the ball asymmetrically – can cause unexpected movement to the batter’s eye.

Holmes made the change with his sinker, and now he’s done it with his slider, this time gripping it so it has less gyrational spin and a greater sweeping motion – the Yankees call it a whirly, or a two-seam slider. He used to hold it more like a curveball, he explained, but by changing the way he grips the seams, he created pitch action that would otherwise require a change in arm slot. He’s mostly scrapped his curveball entirely.

“Because of the grip and the way the seams are orientated, it just gets more horizontal movement,” Holmes said. “So not too much change in delivery but more change in grip and trusting the way it’s coming off my hand.”

The increase in horizontal movement is stark – from 18.5 inches this year from 2.3 inches last year – and the whiff rate rose from 37.8% last year to 50.0% this year. He still throws the other slider, too, he said.

But though data is all well and good, there is another, more human element to Holmes’ change.

“Last year, when we got him over here and showed him how good his stuff is and how much room for error he has, it started this manifestation form of, OK, I’m going to throw the ball over the plate – oh, strike one. I’m going to throw it again – oh, strike two,” Blake said. “Then he started throwing harder and more consistently and it kind of kept building on itself.”

And because of that, Holmes has managed to combine dominance with repetition. Not only does having all the data help create repeatable actions, but so does changing grip rather than arm slot.

“Definitely,” Holmes said when asked if the science gives him more confidence. “It kind of helped me to accomplish this – just because you know the numbers, the averages, how certain pitches play that other people throw and you know where you line up, so it gives some sense of comfort that if you can create a pitch with this movement profile, you can trust it and that’s kinda helped a little bit with the sinker.”

All the numbers are cool but he isn't going out there thinking of Newton’s third law, or worrying about airflow. He’s simply pitching, he said.

“I kind of like the number stuff but I think for me knowing why my sinker is good and knowing which one is my best one and why has helped my consistency and just being able to repeat it,” he said. “That’s something I dove into just in the sake of knowing myself and knowing the pitch better, which I think is helping.”

Holmes’ embraces analytics “maybe a step further than most guys do,” Blake said. But what makes him special is his ability to metabolize the information without overthinking when it’s time to perform. It's an increasingly necessary skill in a sport that continues to lean more on metrics that were mostly unheard of a decade ago.

“I think it’s a testament to him, not letting it muddy his game skills, of being aggressive in the zone, of attacking hitters,” Blake said.” A lot of times, guys will probably be on one side or the other end – really good game skills and they don’t worry about that stuff, or they’re analytically inclined and they focus on that and then maybe aren’t as focused on the game portion of it. I think when he gets out there, he trusts the work he’s done to prepare himself and it puts him in a position to execute pitches.”

Execution to evolution – it’s a shift the Yankees are happy to benefit from.

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