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Clay Holmes has become an elite reliever

With the exception of fantasy baseball, we evolved past the relevance of saves long ago. An inning is an inning, whether it’s the first, ninth, or fourteenth. Still, it means something that Clay Holmes earned his third and fourth saves of the 2022 season— and his entire career— in consecutive appearances on May 18 and May 21. He has ascended to the very top of the pecking order in the best bullpen in MLB, supplanting a potential future Hall of Famer.

When the Yankees acquired him from the Pirates for a pair of punchless minor league utility infielders— Diego Castillo and Hoy Park— they couldn’t have imagined his immediate metamorphosis into a right-handed version of peak-Orioles Zack Britton. In his 49.2 IP as a Yankee since the trade last July, he has a 1.09 ERA, a 0.75 WHIP, and 55 strikeouts. Most importantly, he has walked just six batters after giving out 84 free passes in 119.2 IP with Pittsburgh.

The most obvious change he made was eschewing his worst pitch. Early in the 2021 season, he featured his curveball almost about as much as his slider. When he joined the Yankees he ditched the pitch almost entirely. In 2022, he has thrown only three of them all year. Instead, he has bumped his sinker usage up from about 50% to around 75%.

Clay Holmes's pitch usage chart shows he stopped throwing a curveball.

His power sinker has developed into one of the single most effective pitches in MLB. It averages 96.3 mph and dives in on right-handed hitters. It generates a healthy amount of whiffs, but its real superpower is getting groundballs. Batted balls have an average -14 degree launch angle against the offering. An absurd 83.3% of all batted balls against him this year have been grounders. No other pitcher’s groundball rate is even as high as 70% (minimum 10 IP), and the single-season record is 80% (2016 Britton).

While his sinker is his bread and butter, his slider plays off of it beautifully. Along with several other Yankee hurlers, he reworked his slider grip this spring to generate more horizontal movement:

Holmes’ radical transformation since joining the Yankees has turned him into one of the best relievers in MLB. Through Saturday, he has faced 78 batters in 2022. 21 of them struck out, two walked, and one was hit by a pitch. Of the 54 who put the ball in play, 46 hit grounders. As a result, he has allowed only two extra-base hits all year, both of which were doubles.

The most inexplicable change of all is his lack of free passes. With the Pirates, he either walked or hit 17.6% of opposing hitters. With the Yankees, he only gave up walks or HBP to 3.9% of batters faced. Hitters know they can no longer be passive and wait for him to fall behind in the count or throw ball four. Now they have to be aggressive or risk a called strike three. This causes them to swing at less delectable pitches, bumping up his whiffs and generating weak contact.

There’s more than one way in which walk rate led to his move into the closer role. Aroldis Chapman hasn’t technically blown a save yet this year, but he was bombed in a tie game yesterday. his walk rate is up to 15.2%. Perhaps it’s even more concerning that his strikeout rate is down to 22.7%, which is right around league average. For reference, his career strikeout rate is 40.7%— second-best in MLB history trailing only Craig Kimbrel.

The coinciding of Holmes’ rise and Chapman’s decline led to a natural passing of the torch. Aroldis’ problems are a subject for another day, but the Yankees are in excellent hands with Holmes no matter which inning they use him.