Is Clay Holmes the Most Impressive Graduate From the Yankees’ Pitching Lab?
Few pitchers in the history of the game have shown the kind of improvement after switching organizations that reliever Clay Holmes has since joining the New York Yankees.
During his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which started in 2018 and ended in July 2021 when he was traded to the Bronx Bombers, he had an ugly 5.57 ERA and a 1.64 WHIP, and walked 14.9% of the hitters he faced in 119.2 innings.
The Yankees only had to surrender two mid-level infield prospects in Diego Castillo and Hoy Park. In exchange, they received arguably the best reliever in baseball without the Pirates knowing it.
Since landing in New York last year, Holmes has an incredible 0.97 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP in 64.2 frames, walking just 3.7% of the batters he has faced and striking out 29.9%.
This year alone, he has a mind-blowing 0.49 ERA in 35.2 innings. He has conceded just two earned runs, and he gets 7.20 strikeouts for every walk he surrenders. That will work.
The Yankees, who have turned several flawed pitchers into aces and reliable contributors in the last couple of years (Néstor Cortés Jr., Michael King, Jameson Taillon, Jonathan Loáisiga, Jordan Montgomery, Lucas Luetge and more), basically told him last year to stop nibbling and trying to hit the corners. With so much movement on his pitches, the organization encouraged him to throw his two-seamer in the zone and let its natural drop and run do the rest – and it has worked wonders.
That’s not the only thing the Yankees did for him, of course. They changed his pitch mix (he doesn’t throw a curveball anymore, focusing on a deadly two-seamer/slider combination), and they improved both offerings to the point that both are absolutely elite.
In this exercise, you may find that Holmes throws a two-seamer, but other publications call it a sinker. In our database, they’re pretty much one and the same (certain pitchers just make the pitch move/sink more than others). In any case, the pitch is death to both righties and lefties, and he throws it a whopping 81.3% of the time (heading into Wednesday’s action).
Holmes two-seamer/sinker is an absolute problem for hitters. Here, you can see how he can use it for called strikes, as the pitch starts out of the zone but has so much arm-side movement that it ends up pounding the zone:
Holmes uses the two-seamer to get swinging strikes, too: Right-handed batters, for example, will see a two-seamer down for a called strike.
Then, they’ll see a similar pitch that starts a bit more inside but still in the zone, so they’ll think they have to swing to avoid a called strike. Here’s the thing: The pitch will move inside like a changeup, but at 98-99 mph, it often ends up well outside the zone.
Here’s what it looked like to Teoscar Hernandez of the Toronto Blue Jays:
According to Baseball Savant, the two-seamer has an average launch angle of minus-13, which is insane. It is the main reason behind a MLB-best 81.8% groundball percentage (among pitchers with at least 35 innings).
And really, it’s not even close. Framber Valdez of the Houston Astros is second with a 68.2 groundball rate.
Holmes has a plan for both righties and lefties, and he executes it to perfection. He goes to his two-seamer 89.1% of the time to start out lefties – mostly down and away.
Against righties, the number goes down a bit, at 85.4% (mostly low and in) with a little bit more sliders (14.6%) – all low and away.
He prefers to work lefties with pitches that move away from the batter, not inside, which is a logical approach:
When he has lefties at two strikes, he goes to his two-seamer 92.1% of the time – again, mostly low and away. Against righties, though, he throws 64.0% two-seamers and 34.9% sliders.
Walking on the sun is easier than getting a hit off Holmes when you’re a right-handed hitter and have two strikes. You just don’t know if the pitch will move inside or outside until it’s near home plate, and that movement is just nasty.
Taking a look at his slider, one might think it’s his best pitch:
But no. Not even close. His two-seamer is the most valuable in baseball right now by total raw value, which is a comprehensive pitch-by-pitch evaluation of a hurler.
It does more than just look at the outcome of an at-bat. Raw value assigns value to the outcome of each pitch and helps us understand how a player’s performance helped his team relative to league average. Pitchers get credit, for example, for forcing batters into swinging and missing or hitting in a poor launch angle.
So consider this: Holmes ranks 11th in the majors in accumulated raw value at minus-14, which is pretty impressive considering he’s the only reliever in the top 18. He’s also first with a 13 RV- (a raw value rate metric that compares performance to league average) among pitchers who have faced at least 110 batters. Lower is better for pitchers and MLB average is 100.
His vaunted two-seamer is the most valuable two-seamer in MLB with total raw value of minus-11.8.
To further analyze Holmes’ stuff, command and ability to throw strikes, we can use whiff+, command+ and strike+. The first one is the rate at which a pitcher generates swinging strikes; the second one allows us to quantify how good he is at placing the ball where he wants (or executing his plan with every pitch, if you will), and the third one lets us evaluate how good a pitcher is at earning strikes, both called or swinging.
In these three metrics, 100 is considered average. Now, it’s clear Holmes is getting by on pure stuff rather than command, which is usually a good omen for the future as long as the command (and control) don’t become a problem. His whiff+ on his two-seamer is an excellent 156, and it’s even better with his slider at 170.
Command+ tells us both pitches are a bit below-average (92 on the two-seamer and 90 on the slider), but those are acceptable marks for pitches with so much velocity and movement. And Holmes is very good at earning strikes with both pitches: he has a 118 strike+ with the two-seamer/sinker and a 116 mark with his slider.
All things considered, the Yankees saw a pitcher with wicked pitch movement last year, acquired him on the cheap, and worked with him to turn him into an elite reliever. This year, he has done the things that made him successful in 2021 more often – and better. And the results are evident.
Pitching coach Matt Blake and organizational coordinator Sam Briend worked with Holmes and are now reaping the benefits of their smarts, planning, and of course, the pitcher’s skill. The Yankees now have a relief ace who took over as the closer and isn’t likely to give the job back.
He is a monster, a truly unhittable force of nature with an incredible blend of pitch velocity and movement.
Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.