Clay Holmes returns to Pittsburgh as one of the best pitchers in baseball

CLEVELAND – When the Yankees first got Clay Holmes from the Pirates, there was barely a response. The big righthander was impressed by Pittsburgh. A converted starter who walked a lot, Aaron Boone wanted to get him into a game right away, just to get a sense of what they had.

“Whoa,” Boone said, his reaction being the first time he saw Holmes’ sinker in person. “He was great for us last year and has clearly moved to this new level this year.” It’s going to be sort of a homecoming for Jameson Taillon, who starts Tuesday, Gerrit Cole and Holmes, who all started in Pittsburgh. †

“You always wonder how a change of environment will work out for someone, whether you go from one team to another team or from one team to our team, and we have different challenges and different things that come with being from a Yankee. † And those are definitely two guys who have done absolutely well in this environment,” Boone said. “And I think they enjoy putting that uniform on every day.”

Holmes returns to PNC Park in a very different position than he left.

As the first half of the season draws to a close, he has established himself not only as the best team in baseball’s closer, but also as one of the best relievers in the game and an expected All-Star.

Holmes laughed when asked what he thought made the difference for him.

“The biggest difference, number one, is that I let fewer people walk,” Holmes said. “I don’t know, I think I’m just really busy using the sinker anymore. I don’t know if throwing more had such a big impact on mastery. I don’t know what it was, but I’ve really got more (control of it) now and it’s been really good.”

He runs the least of his career. He has walked five of the 139 batters he has faced for the lowest 3.6% walk in his career. As a rookie with the Pirates, Holmes walked batters with a rate of 17.8%.

And the sinker is arguably the dirtiest pitch in baseball right now.

Not only does he have the highest ball percentage on the ground (82.6) of his career — better than sinkerballer Zack Britton’s 2016 Cy Young-worthy season — but also the highest percentage on record in the StatCast era. His strikeout percentage (27.3) is the highest of his career.

That has put him in a position to save 15 of his 16 chances this season.

“I mean, I think Clay has been the best reliever in the league so far, the best closer in the league,” said Boone. “Obviously he had a great year for us last year after we took them over.”

In four years with the Pirates, Holmes threw to a 5.57 ERA in 91 appearances. Even last season, before trading, Holmes really didn’t get it. He had walked 25 in 42 innings pitched and struckout 44 batters. He had a 4.93 ERA when the Yankees made the deal for him.

Pitching coach Matt Blake said there were some simple adjustments they made when they bought Holmes. He was missing with this sinker low and inside, so they adjust how he attacked with it. However, Blake said it was part of the process Holmes was already making with the field.

“We told him he had a really good pitch (in the sinker) and that he should use it more,” Blake said.

Holmes’ sinker usage has increased from 59% of his fields in 2021 to 82% this season. That reflects Holmes’ confidence in the field.

“I mean, it’s just kind of a process. I mean, that was probably building all year round,” Holmes said. “It’s not really an ‘Aha’ moment. It was a few steps along the way that you realized some things, you learned some things, where people learning things, it’s just kind of a gradual process where you really start to believe in the feel for and the command.

“Then it started to take off.”

Holmes said he is excited to return to Pittsburgh and arguably one of the best fields in baseball.

“It’s going to be really good to go back and see some of the people I’ve spent a lot of time with and know pretty well, just to catch up,” Holmes said. It’s nice to be back on this team and with what we have going on here. I am absolutely grateful for where I am now and what we are doing as a team.”

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