New York Yankees’ reliever Clay Holmes attended high school in Slocomb, Alabama, and was chosen by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the ninth round of the MLB draft in 2011. He turned down an offer to pitch for Auburn University and accepted a $1.2 million signing bonus from the Pirates.
Holmes played minor league ball for the Pirates between 2012-2018 but was interrupted by Tommy John surgery in 2014, which forced him to miss over a year.
Overall, his performance on the mound in the minor leagues was disappointing. He had trouble with his command and walked a lot of batters.
Holmes successfully recovered from his elbow operation and eventually made his major league debut in April 2018 against the Cincinnati Reds. In 2018, he threw 26.1 innings for the Pirates and produced a horrible 6.84 ERA, 7.2 K/9, and 7.9 BB/9. The following season he tossed 50 innings out of the bullpen and yielded somewhat similar results: 5.58 ERA, 10.1 K/9, and 6.5 BB/9. Then, due to a severe right forearm strain, Holmes threw only 1.1 innings during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Based on his poor performance in the minor and major leagues as well as his serious arm trouble in 2014 and 2020, we can assume that the Pirates did not think they had the next Trevor Hoffman waiting in the wings.
On July 26, 2021, the Pirates sent Holmes to the Yankees for minor league infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park. Holmes was an unknown reliever, and media sports outlets paid little attention to the deal. Most baseball analysts viewed the transaction as a matter of convenience for both teams more than anything else.
On the negative side, in a total of 119.2 innings over 91 games for the Pirates, the Alabama native recorded a 5.57 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 9.2 K/9, and a troublesome 6.3 BB/9. Unsurprisingly, these stats earned him a negative WAR.
However, on the positive side, Holmes (sans facial hair) came with a team-friendly terms. He’s under club control until 2025. Holmes was a low-cost, low-risk acquisition for the Bronx Bombers in return for some needed roster breathing space before heading into the offseason.
Okay, that makes sense. But can fans get on board with that?
Ugh, another awful trade for the Yankees? Haven’t we heard this story before?
In the beginning, manager Aaron Boone had Holmes pitching in non-pressure spots to determine what he had and how he might be used coming out of the bullpen. We can assume that the Yankee skipper did not expect much at the time, given his poor track record with the Pirates. However, Holmes pitched effectively in his new pinstripes uniform early on for New York, which no doubt surprised Boone and the Yankee suits.
After earning Boone’s trust, Holmes began to be slotted into competitive contests and tightrope situations. Exhibiting great poise and self-confidence on the mound, the man from Alabama immediately began punching out premier major league batters in relief as the contending Bombers started revving up their run for the playoffs. Boone and GM Brian Cashman must have been asking themselves, “Holy s–t, who is this guy?”
So, how good was Holmes in 2021? He was impressive. The right-hander pitched in 25 games and logged 28 innings for the Yanks. He posted a knock-your-sox off 1.61 ERA, 2.10 FIP, 10.9 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, and a 1.3 WAR. He also pitched two scoreless innings in the elimination game won by the Boston Red Sox, whiffing one batter and relinquishing just one hit.
An in-depth analysis of Holmes’ pitching performance reveals why he was so successful for his new team. Drilling down, data recorded via Baseball Savant show that he produces a great deal of soft contact. His sinker, curveball, and slider have remarkable vertical movement and surpass MLB averages.
Needless to say, batters have difficulty getting the ball in the air against Holmes. He generated a solid groundball rate of 61.5% pitching for the Bombers.
Holmes had substantial control problems and walked many batters as a hurler for the Pirates. Yet, he significantly improved the command of his power sinker throwing for the Yanks and walked much fewer batters per inning with his new club. In addition to his ability to induce soft contact and keep the ball on the ground, the righty’s newfound ability to consistently place his pitches in the strike zone explains his surprising success with the Yanks.
Ha! Eat your heart out Yankee critics and naysayers! Everyone (including us) was wrong about Holmes. Despite his terrible record with the Pirates, his Britton-like, high-velocity power sinker (about 95-96 MPH) immediately made the trade look one-sided. Maybe the Yanks’ front office thought he had the potential to be a solid reliever all along, or perhaps the Yankee brass was just plain lucky. It really doesn’t matter.
Should Yankee fans feel bad for the Pirates? We don’t think so.
Contrary to their name, the Pirates have become everyone’s trading partner of choice in recent years. The organization has earned a reputation for being easy to pickpocket due to the club’s willingness to give up potential stars since they’re perpetually rebuilding.
The Tampa Bay Rays and other MLB teams have raided the Pirates’ ship a few times, and most clubs have come away with players who eventually became stars without giving up personnel of equal value (e.g. Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros and Tyler Glasnow to the Rays).
Holmes turned out to be a genuine diamond in the rough in a season where several players on the Yankees roster significantly underperformed and were major disappointments (e.g. Luke Voit, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks, and Gleyber Torres). Acquiring Holmes was highway robbery in broad daylight.
Admittedly, Holmes only pitched 28 innings after joining the Yanks. It would be reasonable for Boone and cautious Yankee fans to wonder whether his newfound success with the team will carry over into 2022 and beyond. Who knows, maybe he will turn out to be another Adam Ottavino and not another Zack Britton? OK, fair enough.
However, our gut feeling is that Holmes has had enough time to demonstrate how good he is, and we feel that the Yanks have found another bullpen ace under pitching coach Matt Blake’s guidance. We believe that his only one or two shaky appearances in relief in 2021 for the Bombers likely occurred as a result of being overworked by Boone. Thus, there’s ample reason to be optimistic and expect Holmes to be a dominant force in the Yankees’ bullpen in 2022.
Hey Yankee fans, don’t feel bad for the lowly Pirates. They are used to giving away terrific ballplayers in return for nobody. And true to form, this is likely the case with Holmes assuming that he continues his excellent pitching for the Bombers. Given how much bad karma the Yanks have recently endured, they deserve some good fortune moving forward.