Since he was acquired last year, Clay Holmes has been stupendous for the Yankees. Before the All-Star break, he was pitching to a minuscule 1.31 ERA that was actually as low as 0.46 in early July. He deservedly earned a ticket to the Midsummer Classic as one of the best relief pitchers in the American League.
Unfortunately, Holmes’ performance has suffered in the weeks following the All-Star Game, looking more human than at any other point in the season. As a consequence, his post All-Star ERA sits at a ghastly 8.44. Granted, he has only pitched 5.1 innings since that time, but this skid began even slightly before the break, when the lowly Reds shellacked him in a stunning loss on July 12th. Thus, his July ERA was well above his overall ERA at 7.00 over nine innings of work.
So what is going on with Clay Holmes? Has he suddenly lost his ability to throw that amazing sinker? Almost all of his metrics remain very strong:
Holmes’ expected batting average (.165) and expected slugging percentage(.214) are within the top one or two percent of the league. Those are great numbers, and his expected ERA sits at a very pretty 1.94. This is actually below his earned run average of 2.12.
To a certain extent, Holmes has been struck by some degree of misfortune when it comes to batted balls. Groundball pitchers will always be limited by a function of luck with balls in play, as even with the best placed infielders, some forms of contact will always make it through the infield. The extent of how many hits comes down to the placement of infielders, the quality of contact, and just how the ball happens to be rolling that day. The type of contact has been pretty good for Holmes, while the Yankees have an advanced analytics department to place defenders. This only leaves luck as the last element, and sometimes, it will not go in his way. This seems to be part of the problem.
However, it’s a little too simplistic to blame bad luck for all of Holmes’ second-half problems. There are two major trends that have been somewhat concerning. One issue is that hitters have been able to square up the baseball against Holmes lately.
Holmes’ hard-hit percentage has been much higher in July and August (so far). In conjunction with this issue has been worrying increase in his walk percentage. Over 36.2 innings from April to June, the new closer walked only five batters, good for a dazzling 3.6-percent walk rate. Since the beginning of July, he has walked 9 over just 10 innings, and his walk rate sits at an ugly 17.6 percent.
Why has Holmes suddenly lost the ability to find the plate and put away batters? This seems to be a problem with his control of the baseball. Holmes has been unable to consistently make strikes when he needs to. For example, in the July 31st game against Kansas City, his sinker was all over the place. In just 0.2 innings, he walked a batter and let up three earned runs, taking the loss. The right-hander’s showing on June 14th was much better, in contrast:
In the latter game on June 14th, his sinker consistently found the zone and the pitches were grouped fairly well together. It makes sense then that he did not let up any earned runs during this game.
There is some hope on the horizon for Holmes. While he might have blown the save against the Cardinals on August 5th, his control seemed to be much better than the previous few games:
Holmes’ sinker had fairly good consistency at the bottom of the zone, with most of the pitches finding the zone. This could indicate that he has managed to regain the command that led to him becoming such a valuable reliever in Aaron Boone’s bullpen.
Still, Holmes remains one of the best relief pitchers in entire game. A single bad stretch of pitching is not going to change that. He has been bitten by a brutal combination of bad luck and shaky control. In spite of that, his expected ERA sits below his actual ERA, both of which are near the top of the league. Ultimately, people are never as bad as their worst moments, and never as good as their best moments.
On average, Clay Holmes is an awesome reliever. He just might not be superhuman.