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The once and future closer: It’s Clay Holmes’ time to shine

With bullpen injuries piling up, Holmes needs to find his early 2022 form quick.

San Francisco Giants v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

There’s something about the Yankee bullpen, that season after season they can see relievers come and go from the corps and still return a top five unit in the game. Even just a week or so into the 2023 season, the relievers in pinstripes rank in the top five by ERA and top two by FIP and fWAR in all of baseball — this despite two games of the eight played so far not being remarkable outings for the position group.

That optimism took a hit Saturday morning though, as the Yankees reeled from the official loss of two righthanders, Jonathan Loáisiga to the 10-day IL and Tommy Kahnle the 60-day. The strain of losing Loáisiga in particular, to match with a relatively thin rotation before Carlos Rodón returns, increases the burden on the rest of the relievers, perhaps none more so than Clay Holmes.

You all remember his 2022 — an absolutely unconscious first half, a performance that would have seen him the best reliever in the game if it weren’t for what Michael King did, followed by a second half that saw his walk rate triple and his ERA climb by more than three runs. In a matter of weeks Holmes went from a reborn Mariano Rivera to a guy you couldn’t trust come playoff time.

At present time, Holmes has only appeared in three games to start the season, but he looks closer to that first half than second half form:

Holmes is one of those guys whose stuff is so dynamite that his approach needs to be just aiming for the middle of the plate and letting his natural movement take care of itself — the Robbie Ray technique. Once he gets too targeted, that movement pulls his pitches out of the strike zone where it’s easy to lay off, or he has to come way back into the heart of the zone, overcorrecting. Either way it’s a meatball or an easy take, like in his worst month of 2022, last August.

As of now he has yet to walk a batter, the major drag on his performance last season.

Especially with no Loáisiga, a significant amount of Holmes’ margin for error is gone for now. The two traded off the closer role and the slot of Best Reliever on the Team last year, and a major hedge against Holmes’ downturn was Lasagna returning from injury and pitching as well as he did last year down the stretch.

The role of the closer and the impact of the ninth inning itself has been debated over and over again in modern baseball. Teams still like having closers, this is clearly something that matters both to the org and to the guy himself. While the Yankees do have the relief depth to cover these early injuries — Wandy Peralta and Ian Hamilton have both looked impressive — but the team puts a value on having A Closer. That job is now Holmes’ to lose, and while he’s looked good enough in his first couple shots this year, Yankee fans will be forgiven for having the shadows of last year’s second half loom over their expectations.