Time for Yankees to replace closer Aroldis Chapman with Clay Holmes?

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By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

It’s late May, and the New York Yankees have the best record in baseball thanks to Aaron Judge, who looks like the AL MVP, and to Clay Holmes, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball.

Wait, who?

Just as we were all starting to get used to Nestor Cortes Jr. being a Cy Young candidate out of nowhere, the Yankees have managed to pull yet another dynamite arm out of relative obscurity to help them maintain a firm grip on first place in the AL East. 

Holmes has been nothing short of extraordinary. His ascent also comes at a time when longtime All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman has been struggling mightily with his ninth-inning responsibilities, having allowed earned runs in five consecutive outings dating back to May 11. Holmes, meanwhile, has allowed zero earned runs in his past 19 appearances and has converted all four save opportunities given to him.

With Chapman also reportedly dealing with a minor Achilles injury, it’s possible the window for Holmes to seize the closer job outright may never be more open than it is right now.

If Holmes does indeed supplant Chapman — one of the greatest closers the game has ever seen — this would be quite the upset. We’re talking about a 29-year-old pitcher who was never on any Top 100 prospect list and arrived in the Bronx sporting a 5.57 career ERA in 119.2 IPs with the Pirates.

It’s been a slow burn for Holmes to get to this point, but it’s not like the talent hasn’t been there. As the no. 1 prep player in Alabama and the valedictorian of his high school class, Holmes was viewed as a tough sign by MLB teams who thought it would take a lot for the big right-hander to forgo his strong commitment to Auburn in favor of pro ball. The Pirates met the price, selecting Holmes with their ninth-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and giving him a $1.2M bonus, which is still the highest bonus ever given to a ninth-round pick. Though he was selected 272nd overall, Holmes received the 43rd-biggest bonus in the entire 2011 draft.

Despite the seven-figure bonus, Holmes was never considered among the elite young arms in the minors, let alone in a Pirates system then headlined by the likes of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Tommy John surgery during spring training in 2014 shortly before his 21st birthday took Holmes further off the radar and kept him off the mound until June 2015. Still, Holmes continued to climb the MiLB ladder steadily, but his numbers were not spectacular and lacked the strikeout totals typically associated with the top pitching prospects in the game.

By the time Holmes made his MLB debut in 2018, he was 25 and trending toward the bullpen. He posted a 6.84 ERA in his first 26.1 MLB innings and looked like any other young pitcher trying to find a way to stick at the highest level.

So what made Holmes different? Though the strikeout totals never wowed, the grounders were always there. Holmes often finished near the top in ground-ball rate wherever he was pitching, even as a starting pitcher. Such a skill has always been valued by MLB teams — he just needed to maximize it to find a consistent role in the big leagues.

Even in his first two difficult seasons in Pittsburgh in 2018 and 2019, in which he posted a 5.58 ERA, Holmes’ 62.7% ground-ball rate ranked among the league’s best. The truth is, Holmes’ superpower sinker has always been there for him — and he was already starting to find results even before being traded to New York last July. While the ERA (4.93) may not have been pretty, the ground-ball rate (72.8%) in Holmes’ 42 innings with Pittsburgh before the trade was leading all MLB relievers. He had always been quite good at producing grounders, but not this good.

After the trade, Holmes’ seemingly strong process finally began to yield strong results for the Yankees, posting a 1.61 ERA in 28 IPs, notching 34 strikeouts compared to just four walks, and even throwing two scoreless innings in the wild-card game against Boston. It was clear that the Yankees had found something in Holmes, but it’s unlikely even his most ardent supporters could have seen the start he has had in 2022 coming.

Tied for the MLB lead in appearances with 20, Holmes has posted a 0.42 ERA in 21.1 IPs, allowing just 13 hits and striking out 21 batters while walking just two.

These mind-blowing stats to start the season can be credited in large part to Holmes’ continued ability to produce soft contact. However, he is no longer just garnering grounders at a league-leading rate, but a historic rate.

We’re still dealing with small samples, but consider this: Holmes’ 83.3% groundball rate would be the highest we’ve seen from any reliever since at least 2002. And Yankees fans are plenty familiar with Holmes’ biggest competition atop that leaderboard — he was also a midseason trade acquisition from a last-place team:

1. Zack Britton, 2016: 80%
2. Zack Britton, 2015: 79.1%
3. Zack Britton, 2019: 77.2%
4. Aaron Bummer, 2021: 76.1%
5. Brad Ziegler, 2012: 75.5%
6. Zack Britton, 2014: 75.3%

There have been only 17 qualified relief seasons with a 70% ground-ball rate since 2006. Six of them belong to Britton, and four belong to the submariner Ziegler. For Holmes to even be discussed among this group should paint a pretty good picture of how effective his sinker has been. By run value, it’s been the most effective sinker and one of the 10 most effective single pitches in all of baseball.

Last Wednesday vs. Baltimore, Holmes came on in the eighth inning in relief of Cole, whom the Pirates had selected first overall in the same draft in which the Pirates selected Holmes. Though Cole had already been traded before Holmes made his MLB debut with Pittsburgh in 2018, Cole knew the sinker was Holmes’ go-to pitch but doesn’t remember it ever being this good. Now the Yankees’ ace believes Holmes’ sinker is one of the best pitches in baseball.

While the sinker has certainly taken center stage this season, it’d be inaccurate to call the pitch a revelation or discovery. For Holmes, it’s simply what he’s always known. 

“From a very young age from when I first started pitching, a two-seam grip was just comfortable for me,” Holmes told FOX Sports. “So as young as 9, that was just my fastball. There was a comfort there. As long as I remember being a pitcher, that’s just how I held the ball, and it had some natural movement.”

All that said, the greater success this season can’t entirely be attributed to the sinker, as special as it has been. With the four-seam fastball completely out of the picture, Holmes also came into 2022 with the goal of finding a secondary pitch that would pair well with his bread-and-butter sinker. The slider appears to be the answer.

“In the offseason, the plan was to really figure out a slider shape,” he said. “So I added kind of a new slider to give me a little more of a horizontal look to pair with my sinker. I’ve added that in this year and had good success with this so far.”

Indeed, Holmes’ slider has seen a marked uptick in side-to-side action, now averaging more than 10 inches of horizontal movement compared to the two-to-three inches it had been averaging before this year. It also helps Holmes to get the whiffs he needs when the situation calls for it more than his patented ground balls.

And yet, perhaps more incredible than Holmes’ results on the field has been the ease with which he’s transitioned from pitching on a last-place team in a small market to the largest stage baseball has to offer.

“There’s the expectations of the big-market team, and just kind of what that entails and the crowds and the winning,” he said. “For me, it was nice. The change of scenery was, I don’t wanna say drastic, but there’s a lot of differences. I think that kind of did breathe a little life in me and gave me new energy.”

Holmes is under contract through the 2024 season, so it’s a good thing he’s already comfortable, because he could be one of the most important Yankees on the roster for the foreseeable future.

“A packed Yankee Stadium — there’s nothing like it,” said Holmes. “It’s definitely fun making that transition.”

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in D.C. but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.


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