April showers bring May flowers?
Although that saying may be extremely cliché, it perfectly describes Clay Holmes’ 2021 season thus far. As it stood on May 1st, Holmes had a 5.02 ERA and was being talked about as a real weak link for an otherwise strong Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen. But the turn of the calendar seemed to do a lot of good for Holmes, who rattled off nine scoreless innings in the month of May across 10 appearances, including a huge (and dominant) three-pitch strikeout of Brendan Rodgers in the 6th inning of the Pirates’ 4-3 loss over the Rockies on Sunday.
The majority of the Pirates ‘pen are players who were castoffs from another team. But, there is one current member of the big league bullpen that was drafted and developed by the Pirates. In today’s player profile, I’m going to be looking at Clay Holmes’s journey and how he got to his current, dominant self as well as what the future looks like for him.
All the way back in 2016, the Pirates’ MLB.com prospect list was topped by Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, Kevin Newman, Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and other Pirates who reached the big league level with varying success. Just outside the top 10 on that list was Clay Holmes, who slotted in at number 11. Holmes’ position in the top 30 prospect list declined the next year, falling to 21 after the McCutchen and Cole trades.
Holmes’ 4.22 ERA with Altoona in 2016 was apparently enough to earn a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis in 2017. His debut season at the second-highest level in baseball was pretty good, but possibly overlooked by Steven Brault’s 1.94 ERA and Glasnow’s 1.93 ERA. With all that in mind, a 3.36 ERA across 112 ⅓ innings is still a really good season.
It didn’t take long in 2018 for Holmes to get his first taste of big league action in 2018, as a spring training injury to Joe Musgrove brought him up to the big league club on April 2nd. He wouldn’t have to wait long to make his debut, as he was brought into a 14-3 blowout win over the Cincinnati Reds on April 6th, where he pitched two innings and allowed his first big-league run. As it turns out, that would be his last appearance until June 24th, as he and Josh Smoker were optioned in favor of the current back-end tandem of the Pirates, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez.
Through the end of the 2018 season, Holmes would make 11 total major league appearances, 4 of those coming as a starter. Holmes had a rough season overall, but he struggled a lot in the starting role. In 15 innings, he had a 7.80 ERA, and that included a start in which he pitched six shutout innings. His relief outings were not great either, with a 5.56 ERA in 11 ⅓ innings. The biggest issue with Holmes was his control. In 26 ⅓ total innings that year, he had 23 walks. An interesting thing to note is that Holmes made six relief appearances in Indianapolis in 2018, something he had not done more than once in a season.
2019 was a year of disaster for Holmes, both in the minor leagues and major leagues. After making his first 10 appearances (15 ⅔ innings) to the tune of a 6.32 ERA in Indy, Holmes got recalled, mostly due to the struggles of the big league bullpen. Unfortunately, Holmes did not do much to help those struggles, with a 5.58 ERA in 35 appearances (50 innings). The control was once again the greater issue, as Holmes walked 36 men. He also sustained an injury which kept him out for 2 and a half weeks.
With the new management coming in for the 2020 season, Holmes had what was probably his last chance to prove himself. After an impressive 3 ⅓ scoreless innings in spring training, Holmes was able to crack the opening day roster, even pitching an inning and a third scoreless in that opener in St. Louis. You may know what happened next, and it wasn’t good for Holmes, as he was shut down for the rest of the season with a right forearm strain.
That injury was the final nail in the coffin that ultimately led to Holmes getting non-tendered in December. Less than a week later, however, Holmes came back to the Pirates on a minor league deal, at the least securing some more depth, and as Pirates fans would soon find out, a key 2021 bullpen piece.
After a pretty good 2020 spring, Holmes followed it up with an even better 2021 spring, this time tossing 9 ⅔ scoreless innings. Once again, that was enough to not only get himself back onto the 40-man roster, but to cement himself on the opening day roster.
That whole journey leads us to the present day, where we’re sitting here and asking ourselves how Clay Holmes has become, quite literally, the best reliever in baseball over the past month. Well, I’m going to try to explain based on the trends I’ve observed and researched. When Holmes broke into the league in 2018, he had a mix of six different pitches, led by the sinker, four seam fastball, and the curveball. He also had a tendency to throw the cutter, changeup, and slider, but he only did that about 15% of the time combined. In 2019, he took out the cutter. The interesting thing I saw from those two years was that the fastball was getting hit around an awful lot, with an opponent batting average of .480 (25 ABs) in 2018 and .313 (16 ABs) during the 2019 campaign.
When new pitching coach Oscar Marin arrived in 2020, he and his staff must have seen the same trends and completely removed the four seam fastball from Holmes’ arsenal. Instead, Holmes focused on the sinker, curveball, and slider, and although in a limited fashion, it produced results in 2020 spring training and in his lone regular season appearance last year. The first month of the 2021 campaign for Holmes may have been a feeling out process for him, getting reacquainted with the pitching style he had only adopted for a short time last year. Now that he’s locked in and feeling comfortable, Holmes is throwing his sinker at an average of 95 MPH that has reached as high as 97 MPH with wicked movement and complementing that well with both of his breaking pitches.
What about the control issues that had always been a burden to Holmes? I don’t want to jinx anything, but 7 walks in 24 ⅓ innings looks fine to me. Also, the batting average for all three of his pitches are good, with the sinker getting hit by the opposition at a .231 clip. That is his worst number at that statistic, as both the slider and curveball are getting hit at .212 and .188, respectively.
So what does the future hold for Clay Holmes? Obviously there will come a time where Holmes gives up a run again, but hopefully the runs don’t come in bunches and that he’s able to rebound with the stuff that he possesses. The fact that he’s 28 means virtually nothing in my opinion, because the 3 years of arbitration are of the most value. On the flip side, that team control can be extremely valuable when it comes to trades and such. Whether the Pirates keep him or trade him may hinge on his production up until that July 31st date. Honestly, I don’t mind one bit holding onto Holmes, and I’m saying that after thinking last year that getting rid of him wouldn’t make a change one way or the other for this franchise. It may be a little later than expected and in a different role than expected, but Clay Holmes looks like a solid piece for this bullpen that could be helpful for the Pirates in more ways than one in the future.