As has frequently been the case in recent years, the Yankees project to have one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2023. This was the case entering last season as well, and for significant parts of the year, Clay Holmes was their primary weapon out of the ‘pen. The big righty was acquired in a mid-season deal with the Pirates the year prior, and immediately became a different guy in his 28 pinstripe-laden innings. He earned his way up to the closer spot last year, and the Yankees will need him to be that lockdown presence once again in 2023.
2022 Statistics: 63.2 IP, 2.54 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 9.19 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 0.28 HR/9, 1.1 fWAR
2023 ZiPS Projections: 62 IP, 3.77 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 1.23 WHIP, 9.44 K/9, 3.92 BB/9, 0.58 HR/9, 0.7 fWAR
Much of the 2022 season (and his brief stint in ‘21) was a revelation for Holmes and the Yankees. He was acquired without a lotont of expectations, but became a stud with the flip of a switch. I wrote in April about the simplification of his pitch mix, sticking exclusively with his sinker and slider, and how effective he was in the process.
He was using that nightmarish sinker to get groundballs, and his slider to induce whiffs, working each to their respective side of the plate and executing it perfectly. As a result, his first half was incredible: he posted a 1.31/2.00 ERA/FIP with a whopping 82.7 percent groundball rate. He was selected as an All-Star, an honor he fully deserved.
The second half, however, was not as electric. Holmes lost the ability to locate his two-pitch mix, while his mechanics got out of whack as the season progressed (mostly his release point, which Esteban detailed in September). He spent some time on the IL, and just wasn’t the same pitcher. In the second half, he stuck out fewer hitters, walked more than twice as many, and his FIP more than doubled, albeit in a shorter stint. He rebounded in September and the postseason, but wasn’t quite as automatic.
As we look forward, Holmes likely still stands as the top dog in the Yanks’ bullpen. And with as good as he was (when right) last season, it’s not undeserved. Aaron Boone recently said that Holmes’ role was not the set-in-stone closer. Rather, he plans to use him whenever it might be necessary, likely meaning a game’s highest leverage spots. As good as the Yankees ‘pen is, they can work this way without sacrificing much.
Despite his first half dominance, the projections don’t seem to love the chances of a repeat from Holmes in 2023. ZiPS appears to put more stock in his shaky second half, particularly the lack of command that caused it. The key lies in whether or not Holmes can keep things simple. This is to say, utilizing his two-pitch mix in complementary fashion, with the sinker and slider moving away from each other from the same starting point.
Clay Holmes, 97mph Sinker and 86mph Slider, Overlay— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 15, 2022
Or, why Vlad Jr would swing at that slider. pic.twitter.com/zh2FtqIPhY
Between the deceptive use of his repertoire and an ability to keep his mechanics consistent and effective, Holmes being a truly elite reliever is not far-fetched in the slightest. We’ve seen what his peak looks like, and he also has a few foundational components that will help raise his floor. His pitch mix and shape tends to produce an exceptional amount of groundballs, which can be beneficial, particularly in staying away from the home run (He allowed just two last season, none in the first half).
As mentioned, Clay Holmes won’t be pitching every tight ninth inning in 2023. We may see him in the seventh, with the middle of the order due up, or something along those lines as Boone pointed out. Regardless of the exact details of his role, as the Yankees head into a fresh season, Clay Holmes stands as the Guy in the bullpen, at least for now. They do have an impressive list of guys Boone can turn to, and they could be quick to rearrange if the worrisome second half of last year, and the less-bullish projections end up being closer to reality for Clay Holmes.