Clay Time: Holmes Turns Into Elite Relief With Yankees

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.

“Given the situation of the Pirates, you know there would be some trades,” Holmes said. “I was just curious about the team. When I heard I was going to the Yankees, it was so exciting.”

The change led to a transformation in Holmes. The 29-year old righthander has gone from worst to first in the standings and from the big league-roster to a potential All-Star appearance.

Ninth innings in the Bronx has become Clay Time, Holmes coming in capped low as Andy Pettitte and getting batters like, well, clay pigeons.

“You see kind of a finished product, a polished man in the prime of his career walking out there night in, night out with a lot of confidence,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “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 saves with a run of 25 scoreless innings and a 0.35 ERA. Still, Holmes is so new to the ninth inning that he misses the job’s status symbol: a fixed entry song.

He netted 82.3% this season, easily the highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings, ahead of Framber Valdez in second place (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 higher than 4.

“I get mad at him sometimes,” outfielder Aaron Judge said with a mischievous smile. “When he comes in in the ninth, I say, ‘Hey, man, you can give me one ball. You can give me a little bit of action out there.’”

A closer has been part of the backbone of the Yankees for most of the past quarter-century, first Mariano Rivera, then David Robertson and Andrew Miller, and Chapman for much of the past six seasons.

Rivera overwhelmed with his famous cutter.

Holmes discovered success by limiting his arsenal to two.

Holmes was a four pitcher until 2019 and dropped his fastball the following year, maintaining a mix of sinkers, sliders and curves. He threw 144 turns for the Pirates last season, but only seven for the Yankees.

He has driven hitters crazy this season with 273 sinkers and 68 sliders keeping the batters at a .169 average.

During Holmes’ second series with the Yankees, pitching coach Matt Blake met with him to discuss a plan based on a highlights report prepared after the transaction.

“I always like to see a man have a vision for himself and we have a vision for him and then kind of make a plan to get there,” Blake said. “With him it seems simple, like, hey, your sinker is really good, throw it more over the board. It’s not always that easy with guys, but in this case he took over. He understood that he had a big margin of error and that maybe he was nibbling more than he needed to and giving him some safer places to throw the ball.”

Holmes immediately felt at ease, 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 down Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick and Tyler Glasnow in the fifth round. Jameson Taillon had been the second overall pick last year.

“In terms of hitting 99 miles an hour right out of the shower, he was right there with Tyler, with Jamo,” Cole recalled of their dorm days in Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. “We were young and stupid and we did stupid things together. It’s kind of cool that we’re kind of connected again.”

Holmes spent 2012 at State College, a low grade A team, and moved to West Virginia the following year. He felt something near his elbow on his last start in Lexington on Aug. 31 and received a platelet-rich plasma injection. Feeling little improvement, he opted for Tommy John surgery on Dr. James Andrews, who had repaired a torn right ACL when 11-year-old Holmes was injured while playing soccer.

Holmes didn’t return with the rookie-level Gulf Coast Pirates until June 23, 2015, beginning his climb back up the minor league ladder. He bounced up and down at the minors and was recalled seven times in 2018 and three times in 2019.

His 2020 was delayed by a broken right leg from a comebacker on February 29, and Holmes sprained his right elbow, ending his season on July 24. Holmes was not offered a 2021 contract, was removed from the 40-man roster and went to train last year with a minor league deal. He had a 4.93 ERA in 44 games with Pirates last year.

Yankees scouts Shawn Hill and Brandon Duckworth, a pair of former big league pitchers, argued for the acquisition of Holmes as a trade target.

Hill said in his July 10 report that trading for Holmes was “a no brainer.” On July 26, New York traded a pair of minor leaguers for Holmes, infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park.

Holmes’ walk dropped from 25 in 42 innings with Pittsburgh to four in 28 with Yankees, his ERA dropped from 4.93 before the deal to 1.61 after.

He averages 96.5 mph in his career with his sinker and 84.9 mph with his slider, running three times 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 realize which 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 grateful for the journey and all the stops along the way that taught me who to be and ultimately brought me where I am today.”

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