There’s an old video of Clay Holmes that pops up when you Google him and his sinker, his long hair and beard quickly indicating that this was filmed when he still was a Pirate. He talks for about a minute, showing where his middle finger juts up against the seam in his grip, 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 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 was a forgettable reliever with plenty of potential just a year ago and now is 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. Even though everyone knows what’s coming, no one can really hit it the way he wants.
Along the way, he’s become the most valuable arm in the Yankees’ bullpen. It’s a stature that’s due mostly to his dominance but also necessity: Three of their relievers hit the injured list in the span of a week — Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loaisiga.
Holmes already was outperforming Chapman when the closer went on the IL with an Achilles injury — something that makes his natural ascension to the position that much easier. He earned his fifth save of the season Wednesday in a 2-0 win over the Orioles and his sixth save on Friday in a 2-0 win over the Rays. In the latter, he threw the five fastest pitches of the game, topping out at 99.8 mph.
“That’s one of the nastiest pitches in baseball,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Holmes’ sinker, and the numbers support him.
Fast . . . and it moves, too
According to Baseball Savant, Holmes has the best sinker in the game, with a run value of -9, and the sixth-best pitch in baseball (entering Saturday's games).). It averages 96.5 mph — almost 4 mph less than Chapman’s — but it has close to 17 inches of run along with 24 inches of drop and has helped him to a ground-ball rate of over 80%.
Holmes has pitched 24 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest in the majors, allowing only 12 hits and two walks with 26 strikeouts in that span. He has a 0.36 ERA and a projected ERA this season of 1.14, which would put him in the league’s top 1 percentile. He’s thrown 40 pitches in his last three outings, and all but seven have been strikes.
“I think he’s in a really good place,” Boone said. “He’s got a ton of confidence — understandably so with the sinker-slider combination — but [also] the ability to know what he wants to execute, have the conviction of that plan and then the stuff to back it up. You’re seeing a really complete and polished . . . ”
Boone paused, looking for the word.
That’s easy enough to understand, but the real question is how did it all happen, and so quickly?
The thing is, in order to understand how the early 2021 version of Clay Holmes — the one who pitched to a 4.93 ERA in 44 games with the Pirates — turned into the Yankees version of Clay Holmes (1.61 ERA in 25 games in 2021 after the trade), 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 — such as using the seams so that air interacts with the ball asymmetrically — can cause unexpected movement to the batter’s eye.
Holmes utilized it with his sinker, a process he began when he was with the Pirates, as indicated with that old video. Now he’s done it with a 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 said, but by changing the way he holds 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 — 11.4 inches this year, up from 2.5 inches last year — and the whiff rate rose from 37.8% last year to close to 50% 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 the change in Holmes.
“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.”
(Holmes walked 25 in 42 innings with the Pirates last season. After the trade, he walked four in 28 innings for the Yankees.)
And because of that, he has managed to combine dominance with repetition. Having all the data helps him recreate success. It also allows him to pound the strike zone more and let it rip, thus the immaculate command with ticked-up velocity.
“Special — he’s a video game,” Jameson Taillon said after Friday’s game — one he started and Holmes finished. “I had the PitchCom in my hat still so I could hear what he was throwing in the ninth and it was like a video game following along with him. He’s a guy who always works at his craft. He’s always trying to get better. He’s one of those guys, like, if you have to bet on someone, he’s a guy you would have bet on years ago to figure it out and become this guy. Not super-surprised at what he’s doing, but it’s fun to watch.”
Confidence through science
“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, he said, but he isn’t going out there thinking of Newton’s third law, or worrying about air flow. He’s simply pitching.
“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.
“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.