Yesterday and shaky Opening Day aside, Clay Holmes has largely been excellent at the start of his first full season as the Yankees’ closer. Yesterday’s blown lead wasn’t the first time he’s seen trouble, though. Just the first time he wasn’t able to wriggle his way out of it.
Flashback to the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game in Cleveland, where the Guardians have loaded the bases on back-to-back walks with two outs in a 4-3 game. Things appeared to be spiraling rapidly as Amed Rosario came to the plate with the winning run 180 feet away, but Holmes managed to dig deep and make the pitches he needed to lock down the same. Diving a little farther into that sequence to Rosario shows us just one particular aspect of what makes Holmes so good.
The important context is that Holmes had no command of his sinker. The back-to-back walks he had issued to Oscar Gonzalez and Steven Kwan prior to Rosario’s at-bat had come on a total of nine pitches. Holmes appeared to be struggling with syncing his upper- and lower-half mechanics, speeding up parts of his delivery and leaving his arm behind for a just-slightly-too-early release point, causing his sinkers to consistently miss high and to his arm side the entire inning.
With the bases loaded and a one-run lead — not to mention the momentum firmly in Cleveland’s favor — the start of Amed Rosario’s at-bat wasn’t promising for the Yankees. Holmes finally managed to bring his signature sinker down, but he still couldn’t make it close enough to be a competitive pitch, overcorrecting the other direction for an easy ball one.
At this point, Holmes and Kyle Higashioka had a choice to make. It was time for a breaking ball, and while Holmes possesses both a slider and a sweeper, they opted for the former. Perhaps they were wary of leaving a pitch up in the zone, where he’s liable to locate the sweeper; perhaps Holmes just has a better feel for commanding the slider. Either way, he finally executed a pitch, evening the count with an excellent slider to establish the outside corner of the zone.
They weren’t confident enough to do it twice in a row, however. Holmes continued to try to establish the sinker in the strike zone, possibly figuring that even if Rosario did put the ball in play, they’re okay letting him take his chances with barreling up a 97 mph demon sinker.
Unfortunately, Holmes still can’t fully execute, and because he once again misses his target (or lack thereof) high by a fair amount, he doesn’t get a call on a pitch that Baseball Savant thinks was pretty clearly a strike. Unfortunately, that tends to happen when you miss on 10 of your previous 11 efforts.
Rosario hasn’t been a force against sliders on the whole, but he did quite well against them last year, accumulating a +8 run value against them according to Baseball Savant. Given the issues Holmes was having with his sinker, however, it sure isn’t enough of an incentive to stop Holmes from throwing the slider again to virtually the same location. It’s not a pitch that a hitter can do a whole lot with, but having just seen it go by for a called strike, Rosario is forced to make an effort at a pitch a few hairs farther out than its predecessor.
Twice in a row on the same pitch means at this point it’s just an execution game. This is what can make Holmes special. His sinker is nasty, but nasty one-pitch pitchers aren’t necessarily too hard to find around the majors. Even if his slider (or sweeper) aren’t as unique as his bowling ball sinker in the high-nineties, the fact that he can simply execute a breaking ball with 40-inches of drop three times in a row isn’t easy, and isn’t something that your routine reliever can do.
But do it here he does. Even though it’s not quite as well-spotted as the previous two, Rosario simply isn’t seeing it well enough to differentiate it. With two strikes, he’s in survival mode, and by the time he realizes that it’s well off the plate, it’s just too late.
At-bat over, save and win secured. That’s how you prevent a catastrophe, kids! Just make sure your closer can command a 60-grade breaking ball on top of a sinker that can sometimes be described as un-barrel-able. I’m sure they grow on trees — just ask Pittsburgh.