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HomeSportMLBYankees Mag: Holmes' sinker a lethal pitch

Yankees Mag: Holmes’ sinker a lethal pitch

Yankees Mag: Lethal Weapon 2

Like Mariano Rivera before him, Clay Holmes has one pitch in his arsenal that most hurlers would kill for

Standing 6-foot-5, Holmes confounds opposing hitters with the trajectory of his pitches. The incredible sink in his two-seamer hits bats like a bowling ball, inducing soft contact. That effect helps explain why he has made it to the past two All-Star breaks without having allowed a homer in either first half. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

It was early afternoon at Yankee Stadium, hours before the sidewalk on 161st Street would be congested with foot traffic. The fans would soon be pouring through the turnstiles, music from the public address system would blast away during batting practice. First pitch was just around the corner, another day in The Show about to get under way.

But not yet.

Nestled in the Yankees’ bullpen beyond the wall in right-center field, right-hander Clay Holmes and pitching coach Matt Blake toiled like two scientists in a laboratory. They were busy dissecting the pitch that had transformed the Yankees’ late-game strategy since 2021 — Holmes’ insane, unhittable two-seam fastball.

Not since the days of Mariano Rivera’s cutter has a ninth-inning weapon been so dominant in the Bronx. It has been nearly a decade since baseball’s record-setting closer retired with 652 saves and then saw his Hall of Fame ballot be the first to receive 100 percent of the votes.

Perhaps fittingly for a once-in-many-lifetimes supernova, no one has been able to match Rivera’s reliability; not entirely, anyway. David Robertson couldn’t do it. Neither could Dellin Betances nor Zack Britton. Even Aroldis Chapman and his triple-digit fastball came up short. Finally, though, the Yankees think they’ve found a next-generation unicorn. Thanks to the unique combination of his size, delivery and elite velocity, the 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound Holmes has emerged as a worthy successor to Rivera’s throne.

This is no small accomplishment; it actually borders on a miracle. Holmes says it’s an honor to even be mentioned in the same breath as The One.

“Mariano was so good for such a long time, just an incredible career,” Holmes says. “You look at his accomplishments, and you have nothing but respect. I grew up watching him. His numbers were so amazing, it’s something you shoot for.”

There are, of course, differences between the two, starting with Rivera’s 0.70 ERA in the postseason. He has five World Series rings. Like everyone else on the Yankees’ 2023 pitching staff, Holmes is still looking for his first.

But the closers share a common trait that distinguishes them: Their worlds revolve around a single pitch.

Rivera had his cutter. Holmes has his sinker. Amid a crisis — bases loaded, 3-0 count, game on the line — both pitchers say there’s only one choice. Go with your strength.

All Rivera had to do was hold the ball across the seams, slightly off axis, and throw. Grip it and rip it, he insisted.

Holmes’ arsenal undergoes more maintenance, partly because of today’s technology. Unlike predecessor Mel Stottlemyre, the Joe Torre-era pitching coach who supervised Rivera by old-fashioned visual inspection, Blake uses computer technology.

There are software programs that pinpoint where Holmes gathers his hands, where his leg kick begins, how high his left knee reaches, how far he strides and in what direction. Nothing is left to an instructor’s hunches, not in 2023. Intuition has to be supported by data. If Holmes is off by even one degree, the difference can be contrasted with a single mouse click.

“We keep tight measures,” Blake says of his bullpen sessions with Holmes. “Sometimes Clay gets a little rotational in his delivery; he opens up a little early. His sinker will flatten out, which will pull it out of the zone. So, it’s really making sure his line to the plate is clean and he’s staying on his back leg.”

While Holmes [L] can sift through reams of data along with pitching coach Matt Blake [R], his signature two-seamer is still, he insists, more simple than teammates believe. “They seem pretty disappointed that I don’t have some secret for them,” Holmes says. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

It’s hard to imagine Rivera needing Blake’s high-tech help; the 13-time All-Star’s delivery was as synchronized as a metronome. Holmes, on the other hand, is the first to admit he needs periodic tune-ups. But look at the results.

Holmes can make the ball sink like it’s falling out of the sky. It doesn’t just tumble, it catapults straight downward, from a right-handed hitter’s belt buckle to the ankles. And not just down, but down and in.

Lefties aren’t any better off. Holmes is able to project the ball laterally by as much as 18 inches — essentially from the inside corner to the outside corner — which neutralizes even elite sluggers.

Holmes’ teammates don’t try to hide their amazement.

“That sinker is like a unicorn,” says catcher Kyle Higashioka. “It’s hard enough for me to catch it, and I know it’s coming. I can only imagine what it’s like trying to hit it.”

“I’ve tried to emulate what Clay does, tried to get my pitches to move like that, but his sink is elite,” says fellow reliever Michael King. “You can see it in the way hitters walk back to the dugout, shaking their heads.”

Holmes’ numbers in 2022 backed up the accolades. He posted a 1.31 ERA in 41 games in the first half, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game. Even more impressive was Holmes’ home run ratio: Between Opening Day and the midway point, he faced 163 batters without once being taken deep.

Throw in a 0.87 WHIP, and it started to make sense why the Yankees believed they had found a latter-day Rivera.

Unfortunately, back and shoulder injuries interrupted Holmes’ surge. His ERA during the second half was 4.84; his WHIP was 1.30. It was hard to blame anyone who wondered if his first-half success was a mirage, a short but magical interlude before the league figured him out (in the way it never did Rivera). But Holmes has looked the part again in 2023.

He went into this year’s All-Star break with a 2.23 ERA, limiting the 148 batters he faced to a .194 average without a single home run. Holmes was healthy, averaging 96.2 mph. The sinker looked nastier than ever, prompting a question — the question — from Yankees relievers (and even rivals) who weren’t ashamed to approach the master himself.

Just how do you throw that thing?

“I hear that all the time,” Holmes says with a laugh. “And I tell them, ‘It’s pretty simple, I just hold it on the [narrow] seams.’”

But instead of feeling like they had been handed a winning lottery ticket, outsiders wonder if Holmes is holding back. Nothing that rare, they reason, could be so easily explained.

“They seem pretty disappointed that I don’t have some secret for them,” Holmes says. “I feel like I’ve let them down, like I wish I had more for them. Honestly, though, it’s a pretty generic grip.”

Holmes places his middle finger atop the right narrow seam. The thumb rests underneath, “So I’m cutting the ball in half,” he says. Other than that, there are no gimmicks to throwing the sinker. It’s one of baseball’s most common pitches, simply because it’s so easy to learn.

The sinkerball’s roots trace back to the 1950s, when pitchers first began to experiment beyond traditional four-seam fastballs. Gripping the ball atop the two narrow seams, an experienced pitcher could make the ball ride laterally or sink downward, depending on the amount of pressure applied by the index or middle finger.

Modern-day sinkerball specialists who preceded Holmes included former Yankee Kevin Brown, Red Sox star Derek Lowe and the Diamondbacks’ Brandon Webb. The greatest of all, however, was Greg Maddux, a four-time Cy Young Award winner and first-ballot Hall of Famer whose radar-gun readings barely touched 90 mph.

But the heat was secondary. Like Holmes, Maddux understood what makes hitters uneasy and put that knowledge to use.

The art of barreling up a baseball depends on timing and comfort. That’s why the sluggers enjoy hitting off pitching machines before games, even more than a live arm during batting practice. The pitches from a mechanical device are delivered in steady, predictable fashion, one after another. No pauses, no crazy wind-ups, no need to worry about multiple arm slots. Conversely, what Maddux did in his prime with the Braves, and what Holmes does today in pinstripes, is make pitches move late and unpredictably.

Holmes adds two components to that equation. He’s one of the Yankees’ hardest throwers, and he’s also their tallest pitcher. Standing nearly as tall as 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge, Holmes delivers his signature pitch at such an impossible angle that connecting with it is akin to hitting a bowling ball — one that seems to be falling from a tall building.

“It’s amazing,” Rivera told The Athletic in May. “I’ve seen [Holmes] throw that pitch … that thing is nasty. I don’t know how guys hit that ball. It’s incredible.”

Even playing catch with Holmes can be a burden.

“I never liked throwing with Clay in the outfield when he first got here because his ball moved so much,” King says before adding, “it’s gotten a little easier since.”

That’s because Holmes now loosens up during batting practice by using his four-seam grip. It’s the only time he strays from the sinker. Even growing up, the ball felt more natural with the two-seam grip.

“This is how I threw going back to being 9 years old,” Holmes says. “Because of that, I developed a pitch that naturally moved. When I was drafted [by the Pirates in 2011], they wanted everyone to throw four-seamers for better command. But by the time I got to Double-A, the pitching coordinator was asking me, ‘Hey, didn’t you used to throw a two-seamer? It looks really good; you should go back to it.’”

That’s the profile Holmes brought to New York in the 2021 deal that sent Hoy Park and Diego Castillo to Pittsburgh. General manager Brian Cashman had heard about the strapping reliever who had never pitched in a big market. But unlike many evaluators who are wary of pitchers with just one weapon, the Yankees were all in with Holmes.

That was no shock, considering their rich history with Rivera. From Cashman to manager Aaron Boone to Blake and the rest of the brain trust, the Yankees were instantly on board with Holmes and his sinker.

“We love anybody who has exceptional characteristics on a specific pitch,” Cashman told The New York Times in 2022. “That’s one way the industry has changed, is the recognition that, instead of trying to get all these different parts of your repertoire working and judging people that way, singularly, do they do anything exceptionally well with one pitch? And if they do, gravitate to that.”

Naturally, every pitcher’s path to The Show has been paved by a particular strength. Gerrit Cole has a razor slider. Nestor Cortes can break out the leg kick of an acrobat. Domingo Germán has a to-die-for curveball that fueled his perfect game against Oakland this past June 28. Ian Hamilton features a creation called the “Slambio” — a hybrid changeup that acts like a slider. Ron Marinaccio trusts his change-up above all else. And Holmes? His sinker is so unique he has trouble describing it to this day.

With so much sink on his pitches, Holmes could be a tricky catch partner. It’s one thing to fool batters, but even fellow relievers struggled to warm up with the lanky closer. “His ball moved so much,” says Michael King. While he let up on teammates by switching to four-seamers in pregame sessions, opposing hitters get no such relief. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Holmes doesn’t just throw the pitch, he says. “I feel it.”

Communing with a baseball is a box not many pitchers check. But that’s one more reason why Holmes could prove to be a once-in-a-generation talent. The only unknown was his heart: Could the big man from the small market handle New York? It wasn’t an unfair question, considering Holmes’ Alabama roots and his inexperience with pennant-race pressure. The Pirates placed no higher than fourth in the NL Central division in Holmes’ four years in Pittsburgh, finishing last in three of those seasons.

But Holmes’ universe turned upside down upon arriving in New York. He suddenly found himself in the big, wide open space called Yankee Stadium — full of history and demanding fans.

It was Rivera who helped Holmes manage the culture shock. Not even the great ones are immune to slumps, came the message from the iconic closer.

“Every pitcher goes through moments like that,” Rivera recalled telling Holmes. “It’s all about trusting the abilities. Once you trust your abilities, [Holmes] is going to do what he’s going to do. The rest is not an issue.”

The words are stored in Holmes’ memory bank, there to reassure him when that 27th out sometimes slips beyond his grasp. Rivera’s wisdom has become Holmes’ wisdom.

Standing in the bullpen, looking out at the vast outfield, Holmes realizes he’s living a fantasy that has become real.

“With this team, you always have a chance to win,” Holmes says. “That’s all a ballplayer can ask for. You grow up as a kid hoping to someday pitch in a World Series. With the Yankees, you have that chance. Honestly, it’s what you dream about.”

Bob Klapisch is a contributing writer for Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the August 2023 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.



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