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Clay Holmes is working wonders after being encouraged to attack the zone

The deadline acquisition has pounded the strike zone with his sinker, and the approach has elevated his game.

New York Yankees v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

We have covered just about every Yankees trade deadline acquisition, and so far, the results have been awesome. Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo have impacted games on both sides of the ball, the relievers have been solid, and Andrew Heaney recovered from a rocky start to give the Bombers enough length to notch a comeback victory on Saturday.

New bullpen addition Clay Holmes, in particular, has been very impressive, too. Since coming over from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the July 26th deal for minor league infielders Hoy Park and Diego Castillo, he has allowed just a single run on three hits in 7.1 innings of work. More importantly, he hasn’t issued any free passes.

Monitoring Holmes’ walks is crucial. With the Pirates, he allowed 25 bases on balls in 42 innings, or 5.36 per nine. In 2018 and 2019, that figure hovered around six and seven, and that’s just not the recipe for success.

This improvement is partially why the start of Holmes’ Yankees career is so encouraging. He will eventually walk someone, but any noticeable improvement there for the long haul can make the 28-year-old righty a very dependable reliever. As most who follow the team know, the Yankees need dependable relievers, particularly with Aroldis Chapman on the shelf, Darren O’Day out for the season, and Luis Cessa in Cincinnati. They need bullpen arms they can trust beyond Jonathan Loaisiga, Chad Green, and Zack Britton, or at least someone to help take the middle-relief strain off Lucas Luetge.

It’s certainly eye-opening that Holmes had a 4.93 ERA in Pittsburgh with a well-below average walk rate, and he has been nearly flawless with the Yankees so far. He appears to be trusting his stuff more and not nibbling so much. Trying to be a perfectionist often goes the wrong way, especially when pitches have so much natural movement. The right-hander, it seems, is focusing on throwing strikes and let the wicked movement of his sinker and his secondaries do the rest.

Holmes’ plate discipline profile screams “attacking the strike zone more.” His zone percentage has increased dramatically in the Bronx, from 42.7 percent to 59.8 percent. He has an above-average CSW% (called strikes + whiffs percentage) both in Pittsburgh and New York (31.3 percent and 35.6 percent, respectively), but the way those strikes are being generated has changed:

Holmes in Pittsburgh: 10.9% SwStr%, 20.4 CStr%

Holmes in New York: 6.9% SwStr%, 28.7 CStr%

There’s obviously a disparity in sample size, but at least early on, Holmes is absolutely pounding the strike zone with the Yankees, earning a whole bunch of called strikes. The sinker usually sits around 95-96 mph and generates vertical movement 27 percent better than league average. Thus, he knows that advantage will typically lead to quick, easy outs. Generally speaking, it’s a little unconventional to have your pitcher prioritize called strikes over swinging strikes, but so far, the approach seems to be working for Holmes because of his sinker.

That sinker is the key to Holmes’ success going forward. The pitch is not quite on Blake Treinen or Dustin May’s level yet, but it’s very, very good, similar to Marcus Stroman’s:

Results-wise, it clearly works, too: It has helped Holmes reach a career-high 73.3 groundball percentage, and five grounders for every fly ball (!).

Holmes can get some whiffs with his slider and curveball, with both pitches having a whiff rate over 30 percent. But the sinker is his bread and butter, a pitch he throws 53.1 percent of the time. Hitters have a hard time squaring it up.

It’s also difficult to detect which pitch Holmes is throwing, as you can see here:

The Yankees took a bit of a gamble with Holmes, and the early returns are excellent. He ranks in the top 10 percent of the league in barrel percentage (3.8), expected slugging (.290), and expected wOBA on contact (xwOBACon, with .298.) All the grounders certainly help quite a bit.

Holmes entering the circle of trust would be ideal for the Yankees. He still has to show that he can maintain consistency, avoid walks, and increase the presently small sample of his work, but his start is incredibly encouraging.