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Clay Holmes’ sinker is reaching legendary status

Clay Holmes throws his sinker almost 80 percent of the time, yet hitters can’t touch him.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Before Tuesday’s games, Yankees’ pitcher Clay Holmes led all relievers in groundball percentage, with a whopping 82.7. Not only that, but the second-ranked hurler, Andre Pallante, was over 17 points behind. When it comes to inducing groundballs, no one is in Holmes’ league. Not even close.

It would also qualify as the best groundball rate in baseball among qualified relievers since the stat was counted. Better than peak Zack Britton, if you want some historical context.

How can a pitcher coerce batters into hitting the ball on the ground so much? Well, with an incredible sinker, mostly. Holmes already induced 68.5 percent groundballs last year, but he has taken things to the next level in 2022, and his signature pitch is starting to look like an all-time offering.

For starters, Holmes is throwing his sinker a bit harder this year. The pitch is averaging 96.7 mph this year, up from 96.0 mph last season, and remains one of the hardest pitches in its class. His sinker vertical movement has been similar to that of 2021 (24.1 inches of drop against 25.9 last year), but he has managed to increase the pitch’s horizontal movement from 15.2 inches of break to 16.8, giving it a beyond wicked overall movement profile.

When you have a pitch that hitters just can’t seem to square up (and one that has also helped him generate a sneaky strong 28.1 percent whiff rate), you have to throw it as often as possible. As our own Sam Chapman noted here in late April, Holmes is now basically a two-pitch hurler: he throws his sinker a whopping 79.7 percent of the time, and his slider 20 percent of the time. To sum up, he gets grounders with his sinker (-14 launch angle, which is impressive) and swings and misses with the slider, evidenced by his 49 percent whiff rate.

Sam says Holmes is simplifying and mystifying, and he has a very good point. A reliever doesn’t need to have three or four options to succeed. In this particular case, all Holmes needs is two pitches, and he doesn’t even have to show an even split. When your sinker moves like his does, hitters just won’t stand a chance.

Look at this sequence:

Holmes’ first sinker lands in the inner part of the zone for a called strike. The second one starts in the inner part of the zone, so the hitter offers at it, only to be baffled by the insane horizontal movement of a pitch that ends up way inside, out of the zone.

The Yankees not only improved his stuff, but as a consequence of this, he now trusts it. With Pittsburgh, Holmes’ walk rate hovered around 15 percent and his ERA figures were always near 5.00, sometimes higher. With the Yankees, he doesn’t nibble. He pounds the zone with confidence and trusts the natural movement of his pitches. As a result, his walk rate this year is a meager 3.3 percent, among the best in the league at the 98th percentile.

Holmes’ performance has been night and day if we compare his Pirates days with his current level. In a year, he went from an afterthought to quite likely the best reliever in baseball, at the very least in the top five, all things considered. He has become the Yankees’ closer and their most reliable reliever, and is the owner of one of the most consistently dominant pitches in Major League Baseball: a physics-defying sinker.