NEW YORK (AP) — Clay Holmes was walking through a Target in Pittsburgh last July after a late flight home from San Francisco when Pirates general manager Ben Cherington called.
"Just given the Pirates’ situation, you know some trades were going to happen,” Holmes said. “I was just anxious to hear from the team. When I heard I was going to the Yankees, it was so exciting.”
The change has brought about a transformation in Holmes. The 29-year-old right-hander has gone from worst to first in the standings and from off the big league roster to a possible All-Star appearance.
Ninth innings in the Bronx have become Clay Time, Holmes entering with cap pulled low like Andy Pettitte and picking off batters like, well, clay pigeons.
“You’re seeing kind of a finished product, polished guy in the prime of his career that’s walking out there night in and night out with a ton of confidence,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He knows exactly what he wants to do, how he wants to attack.”
Taking over from a shaky and injured Aroldis Chapman, he is perfect in seven save chances with a streak of 25 scoreless innings and a 0.35 ERA. Yet, Holmes is so new at the ninth inning he lacks the job’s status symbol: a settled entrance song.
He has induced 82.3% ground balls this season, easily the highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings, ahead of second-place Framber Valdez (65.7%). Holmes’ 8.50 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is more than 40% superior to Valdez’s 5.57 — no other pitcher is above 4.
“I get mad at him at times,” outfielder Aaron Judge said with a mischievous smile. “When he comes in in the ninth, I say, ‘Hey, man, you can give me one fly ball. You can give me a little bit of action out there.’"
A closer has been part of the Yankees' backbone for most of the past quarter-century, first Mariano Rivera, then David Robertson and Andrew Miller, and Chapman for much of the last six seasons.
Rivera overwhelmed with his famous cutter.
Holmes discovered success by paring his arsenal to two.
A four-pitch pitcher through 2019, Holmes dropped his fastball the following year and kept a mix of sinkers, sliders and curves. He threw 144 curves for the Pirates last season but just seven for the Yankees.
He’s made hitters look silly this season with 273 sinkers and 68 sliders that have held batters to a .169 average.
During Holmes’ second series with the Yankees, pitching coach Matt Blake met with him to go over a plan based on a highlights report compiled after the trade.
“I always like to see a guy have a vision for himself and us to have vision for him and then kind of create a plan to get there,” Blake said. “With him it seems simple, like, hey, your sinker is really good, throw it over the plate more. It’s not always that easy with guys, but in this instance, he took to it. He understood he had a big margin for error and he might have been nibbling more than he needed to and kind of gave him some safer areas to throw the ball.”
Holmes was comfortable right away, partly because of some familiar faces. Holmes was drafted in the ninth round in 2011 from Slocomb High School in Slocomb, Alabama. That was the same year the Pirates took Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick and Tyler Glasnow in the fifth round. Jameson Taillon had been the second overall pick the previous year.
“In terms of hitting 99 miles an hour right out of the shower, he was right there with Tyler, with Jamo,” Cole remembered of their dorm days at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. “We were young and dumb and did dumb stuff together. It’s kind of cool that we’ve kind of connected back again.”
Holmes spent 2012 at State College, a low Class A team, and moved up to West Virginia the following year, He felt something near his elbow in his last start at Lexington that Aug. 31 and had a platelet-rich plasma injection. Sensing little improvement, he opted for Tommy John surgery that March 19 with Dr. James Andrews, who had repaired a torn right ACL when the 11-year-old Holmes got injured while playing football.
Holmes didn’t return until June 23, 2015, with the rookie level Gulf Coast Pirates, starting his climb back up the minor league ladder. Bouncing up and down to the minors, he was recalled seven times in 2018 and three in 2019.
His 2020 was slowed by a broken right leg from a comebacker that Feb. 29, and Holmes sprained his right elbow, ending his season on July 24. Holmes wasn’t offered a 2021 contract, was removed from the 40-man roster and went to spring training last year with a minor league deal. He had a 4.93 ERA in 44 games with last year’s Pirates.
Yankees scouts Shawn Hill and Brandon Duckworth, a pair of former big league pitchers, advocated Holmes’ acquisition as a trade target.
Hill, in his report on July 10, said trading for Holmes was “a no brainer.” On July 26, New York swapped a pair of minor leaguers for Holmes, infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park.
Holmes’ walks fell from 25 in 42 innings with Pittsburgh to four in 28 with Yankees, his ERA dropping from 4.93 before the deal to 1.61 after.
He is averaging a career-high 96.5 mph with his sinker and 84.9 mph with his slider, walking three and striking out 27 in 25 2/3 innings while allowing 13 singles and two doubles. With Chapman on the injured list and Chad Green out for the rest of the season due to a torn elbow ligament, Holmes has become vital.
“Sometimes it takes some failure and some bumps to kind of realize the direction you need to go and who you can be and the things that work for you,” he said. ”Yeah, maybe we all wish we’d gotten to point B a little faster. But I’m very appreciative of the journey and all the stops along the way that’s taught me who I need to be and ultimately gotten me where I’m at right now.”
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