On July 26th, the Yankees swapped prospects Diego Castillo and Hoy Jun Park to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Clay Holmes, a relatively unknown reliever with dismal career stats but surprisingly intriguing peripherals. To be entirely transparent, I had never even heard the name Clay Holmes before the news of the trade broke, so I simply thought that this was a little throwaway deal that would end up meaning very little in the long run.
Boy, was I ever wrong. Fast-forward three months, and suddenly Holmes found himself pitching in massive spots down the stretch for a playoff contender as his downright dominant performances firmly entrenched himself in manager Aaron Boone’s circle of trust. The addition of Holmes remains one of the brightest narratives in a season rife with disappointing storylines.
2021 Statistics (with NY): 25 games, 28 IP, 1.61 ERA, 2.10 FIP, 2.18 xFIP, 10.9 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 1.3 bWAR
2022 Contract Status: Arbitration 1, controllable until 2025
In 119.2 innings pitched across 91 games for the Pirates, Holmes posted a 5.57 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 9.2 K/9, and a hideous 6.3 BB/9. This production, or lack thereof, was good for a negative WAR.
Despite the lack of production, however, Holmes’ high velocity power sinker made him an intriguing arm in the eyes of the Yankees, and that trade deadline gamble paid off big-time. In just half a season with New York, Holmes became one of the team’s most trusted bullpen arms, leading to a career resurgence that seemingly came out of nowhere. If it weren’t for the wild season that Nestor Cortes Jr. just produced, Holmes’ story would have my vote for biggest (positive) surprise of the year.
Now, if you’re curious about how Clay Holmes managed to turn his season — and potentially his career — around, a quick look at his Baseball Savant page will show you everything that you need to know:
In short, Holmes induces a ton of soft contact. Digging deeper than this quick snapshot, however, paints an even better picture. The vertical movement on his sinker, curveball, and slider are all considered elite against league averages. As a result, hitters struggled to get the ball in the air against him. This is reflected in his whopping 68.5 percent groundball rate, up from his previous career mark of 59.3 percent. Strictly for the sake of comparison, Jonathan Loáisiga’s groundball rate was 61.5 percent.
Most impressive, however, is the leap Holmes made in zone percentage after joining the Yankees. In Pittsburgh, Holmes struggled to consistently find the zone with his pitches, leading to his brutal walk rate and rough stat line at the time of the trade. After coming to New York, Holmes started pounding the zone with his power sinker and the results followed.
Coupled with his uncanny ability to produce soft contact and keep the ball on the ground, Holmes’ newfound ability to pound the strike zone and generate more called strikes led to one of the most beautiful rolling xwOBA graphs you will ever see. At the time of the trade, Holmes’ xwOBA was sitting at .318, hovering right around league average. By the end of the season, that rate levelled out to .262, an elite mark across the league.
Going forward, there is, of course, the question of whether or not Holmes will be able to sustain this level of production. While 25 games is not exactly a small sample size for relievers, 91 innings of bad baseball certainly gives you pause. To my (admittedly amateur) eye, however, his Statcast data, along with his peripherals, his newly discovered approach to pitching, and the fact that Matt Blake is still the team’s pitching coach, gives me the impression that this was no fluke.
At the end of the day, for the relatively low cost it took to get him and the ridiculous level of production the team got from him, it’s safe to say that this trade was a resounding win for Cashman & Co. All of a sudden, Clay Holmes has gone from a complete unknown to one of my most intriguing players to watch in 2022.