After a blown save Monday that spoiled the best start of Domingo Germán’s career, manager Aaron Boone voiced his confidence in beleaguered closer Clay Holmes and did so again following a tough night on Wednesday. Boone noted that the fanbase’s displeasure with the reliever comes amidst a larger skid for the Yankees, one that Holmes himself is hardly the sole reason for, but the sinkerballer has certainly had his struggles in the early going.
In 10 innings, Holmes has yielded seven runs, and while the two that ruined Germán’s night were technically unearned, they came on an error Holmes himself made as he failed to get a single out on the night. Boone’s explanation for sticking with the right-hander through his struggles hinges on just how dominant Holmes can be based on his performance at the beginning of last season, but that stellar stretch is certainly looking more like the exception than the rule.
Aside from his storied struggles in the second half last season, Holmes’ bread-and-butter sinker, described by many as a “bowling ball,” has been nothing short of awful this year. It’s never generated many chases, with swings on just 19.9 percent of pitches out of the zone in his career. But it is hard to square up, so Holmes has historically used it as an “establish” pitch early in the count.
So far this year, Holmes’ sinker has yielded its usual chase rate of around 20 percent, at 20.6 to be precise as of the end of play on Tuesday. That’s still not great, but it’s also not any worse than previous years so it doesn’t explain his struggles. On the other hand, Holmes is only throwing the pitch in the zone 43.8 percent of the time — that zone rate would easily be the lowest of his career, trailing his previous low set in 2019 by four percent. Why would he opt to throw the pitch out of the zone more without significantly better outcomes in those locations?
Worse still, when Holmes is missing with the pitch, he’s missing up, the opposite of what you’d want from a sinkerballer:
Compare this to last year’s results, when Holmes lived down in the zone:
Hitters have taken advantage of the high sink-piece. They’ve been able to square it up better than ever before, hitting 18.8 percent of Holmes sinkers in play with a .392 wOBA on contact, both easily career-highs. In fact, the previous high wOBA on contact against the pitch was .292, set back in 2019.
The reason for the counterintuitive changes driving these results is simple: Holmes is struggling to command the pitch. Back when his sinker velocity spiked to 96 mph in 2021, where it has largely remained, the pitch had much less movement. Last year, it gained 1.6 inches (with gravity), but this year, it’s gained another 2.2. Most of the movement bounce this year has been in the form of extra drop, which doesn’t necessarily align with misses higher in the zone.
At the same time, the extra movement might be an indication that Holmes has changed his grip. An unfamiliar grip could in turn be causing some pitches to slip up and out of the zone. It’s very subtle, but some stills from Pitching Ninja clips make it appear that Holmes’ index finger has moved ever-so-slightly away from the seam on the left side of the ball. This clip offers a closeup from this year:
Clay Holmes, Unfair 98mph Front Door Two Seamer. #baseball #pitching #pitchingninja♬ original sound - Rob Friedman
And this one is from last year:
Clay Holmes, Crazy 98mph Sinker Movement (isolated) pic.twitter.com/Pc2lBFlYPK— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 23, 2022
Otherwise, not much else has changed: his release point and mechanics seem very similar to last season. Holmes has stated that his difficult second half last year came along with some injury struggles; he took some extra time to rest this offseason in the hopes of addressing his health. Perhaps, with a clean bill of health now, his delivery is all the more fluid and that’s what’s leading to the extra movement on the sinker. In that case, it’s something positive, indicative of Holmes’ strength.
As long as he’s healthy, the potential is there for Holmes to harness the new movement or to find a way to return to the movement profile that was so successful early last year.