Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Top Prospects: #13 – John Holdzkom

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To recap the countdown so far:

20. Luis Heredia, RHP
19. JaCoby Jones, SS
18. Willy Garcia, OF
17. Clay Holmes, RHP
16. Gage Hinsz, RHP
15. Trey Supak, RHP
14. Cody Dickson, LHP

We continue the countdown with the number 13 prospect, John Holdzkom.

13. John Holdzkom, RHP

John Holdzkom was one of the best stories in baseball last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
John Holdzkom was one of the best stories in baseball last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Holdzkom represents one of the best stories in baseball during the 2014 season. His career had fallen to the point where he was struggling to find a spot with an independent league team at the start of the year. He spent time with two different clubs, displaying an amazing fastball that sat in the upper 90s, but absolutely no control. He made a small adjustment with his grip, moving his fingers closer together, and suddenly found the control that he was missing.

The Pirates discovered him and signed him to a minor league contract in June. He dominated briefly in Altoona, then was moved up to Indianapolis, where he routinely worked in the upper 90s, while displaying much better control than he had seen previously in his pro career. By the end of the season, the Pirates called him up to the majors, and made him eligible for their playoff roster. He immediately took a big role in the bullpen, filling the seventh inning duties.

Holdzkom has outstanding stuff, with a fastball that averaged 95.5 MPH during his time in the majors, and topped out at 97. He pairs that with a mid-80s palm ball that has tremendous break, and could pass as a plus offering. He still needs to develop more consistency with the palm ball. The 2014 season was a small sample, but Holdzkom showed off his potential by striking out 43.8% of batters in his nine innings of work. He’s not going to continue those levels going forward, but he can be a high strikeout reliever, and if the fixed control is real, then there’s no reason why he can’t eventually be a closer in the majors. The Pirates can currently ease him in with the seventh inning role, and if he’s successful, he could eventually replace Mark Melancon.

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  • NOT A PROSPECT He finished the year with the big club and is going to be on the big club starting the season. You had a small window last year to slip him in then, that window is closed.

    • Tetrapharmakos
      January 22, 2015 11:54 am

      They provided their criteria for prospect status above: “30 appearances for relievers, 50 innings for starters and 130 plate appearances for batters.” Frankly, a September call up with a good chance to break with the big league club for the start of the upcoming season, sounds very much like a “prospect” to me. Holdzkom is an unusual case for any number of reasons but “finished the year with the big club and is going to be on the big club starting the season” isn’t really one of them.

  • The pirates and possibly baseballs feel good story of the year.

  • Honestly, I would have never even considered Holdzkom as a prospect, as I think he is a sure thing for the BP this year, and since he ended the season with the Pirate’s. That said, I guess he could be considered a prospect, but I would rate him a whole lot higher as I think he is the next closer for the Pirate’s (barring a regression in his control). He could be the sleeper in the BP that makes this upcoming season even more fun to think about.

  • Baffled by this….we pick a guy off the street last summer and now he’s our 13th best prospect?

  • if the fixed control is real,

    To me, that will be the key going forth.

  • Tim, what is your criteria for deciding who is a prospect and who is not when they have major league experience?

    • I believe he uses MLB’s prospect eligibility. That’s 180 innings or 250 at-bats with a bit more complications in terms of days on MLB DL I believe. I could be wrong though. Somebody feel free to correct me if so.

    • We use 30 appearances for relievers, 50 innings for starters and 130 plate appearances for batters. We don’t figure in service time.

      • Just curious John, but why then did you try to nail me for referring to Kang in much the same manner ?

        • Holdzkom is much further down on my own prospect list. The Pirates Prospects list is from three main sources putting in their rankings, then team rankings from Indy and Altoona, plus talking to scouts. If the list was just mine, he would not be #13

          • Because of his age ? What difference does it make if he has no MLB experience prior ? His age only means his longevity might be in question.

            • His track record is horrible and I don’t rate relievers this high unless they are can’t miss. His upside is a closer, but as of right now, there is just as much chance he never sees the majors again if he lost his groove during the long off-season. I won’t put 45 innings in 2014(some in Indy ball) that far ahead of the eight years of pro ball he had before 2014. Too small of a sample size. He’s still at the point where you can pick out bad outings like the WC game and say well maybe it’s too soon to assume he’s fixed.

              • Just as much chance he never sees the majors again?

                Well, at least we know why you ranked him so low, I suppose.

                • If he reverts back to pre-2014 Holdzkom, then I would say that is an understatement saying he won’t see the majors again as that pre-2014 pitcher was toiling in indy ball. The other part is that I’m never high on relievers, that’s just personal preference. I didn’t make a full top 50, but he was one of my last five cuts from my own top 20.

                  • Holdzcom does not fit my idea of a prospect, I tried to figure out what he would be, but he is a totally different character. If you break it down, any player in the Pirates minor league system is either an organizational player or a prospect. If Holdzcom does not make the majors this year and has a bad ST, he won’t be just another prospect, he will be lucky if he is an organizational player, the gap is really wide for him.

                  • Well, yeah, if he forgets over the winter how close together he held his fingers last year, I agree. Probably not a big leaguer.

                    That’s obviously a simplification, but I think there should be some amount of trust given to a skill-based change in production. I think there’s a far greater chance of a 20 yo who has yet to make it out of low-A never throwing a big league pitch to begin with than Holdzkom regressing out of the league. Overvaluation of “starting pitcher prospects”, IMO.

                    Regardless, love that you take the time to give your thoughts. Thanks, as always.

                    • I would rather rate a starter higher because they could always fallback to a bullpen spot, but a bullpen spot has no fallback. There isn’t a set way to rank guys when they are all at different levels, so to each his own. Holdzkom has probably already had a better MLB career than at least 15-20 guys in the top 50 will ever have, maybe more.

                      If a kid is projected as a #5 starter(ceiling) in the GCL, he isn’t making a top 50 list, but I’d rather have a solid #5 starter than a solid reliever any day of the year, so you have to figure out at what point in their progress does a potential #5 look better than a reliever because the closer they get to the majors the more likely they reach that ceiling.

                      My best way of evaluating my own personal list is “Would I trade X for Y”. There is no one in the system I’d trade Tyler Glasnow for even up, so he is #1. Then you go down the line until you get to 20-30-40-50 players. I have JaCoby Jones ahead of Holdzkom, so that means I’d trade Holdzkom right now for a Jones clone(without taking into account the potential effect it has on the 2015 Pirates), but I don’t have John Kuchno ahead of Holdzkom, so I wouldn’t make that deal.

              • That particular individual ( Holdzcom ) was not really the focus of my thought. Including the earlier conversation regarding Kang, I thought my point was more clear. If it was that hard to understand, just let it slide.

  • There is no reason to disagree with him being on this list, he is sitting at #14 because he has a small sample size. Vic Black sat at a similar # and had many of the same issues as holdzkom

    • Black also had the poor mechanics along with a prior elbow problem hanging over him at that time.

  • He threw his fastball 94% of the time in the MLB. Unless John is the next Mariano Rivera, who threw his cutter at 90% latter in his career, we need to see the palm ball more before we pass judgement.

  • A guy with legitimate closer ability is likely a 50 grade prospect, however I wouldn’t quite be that aggressive with Holdzkom until we see the breaking pitch more. He threw it 7 times out of 123 pitches last year. I would say 45 would be his grade based on 65-70 fastball and a maybe 50 breaker. That would make his ranking reasonable, although I would have him lower based on uncertainty regarding his second pitch.

    • I think I would be happy with a 45-50 breaking pitch if he can get it over the plate. The fastball is so dominant that to be a middle of the pen guy he will just need to get that breaking pitch over so hitters at least have to honor it. He can’t be 94% FB but he can be 75-80%.

  • I’m sorry, I completely disagree with Holdzkom even being on this list, let alone this high. He’s been a career minor leaguer, who only recently found success with his third team. I love the Holdzkom story and think he does have a future of being a quality major league reliever, but 13th best prospect? No.

    • In a small sample size, his floor is a 7th inning man in the MLB, with a ceiling of a dominate closer. That’s a good prospect.
      Jose Bautista was just a journeyman until he changed his swing to become a star. This guy changed his grip and has became a prospect

    • I don’t see what being a career MiL has to do with it. He made an adjustment that corrected his control and made him a viable pitcher.
      Players rise and fall in the rankings all the time just because it took him longer to find the solution shouldn’t matter as long as he is considered a prospect.

    • Abstractly, I think a completely reasonable argument could be made that no, recent success after years of failure with the upside of “just” a late-inning bullpen arm isn’t enough to justify this ranking.

      However, which prospects would you have moved up?

      • I would have certainly moved JaCoby Jones up. I think 19 is far too low. Keeping him down because of his K/BB rates is unfair. He is very productive with the bat and right now is playing the most difficult position on the diamond.

        • From what I’ve read his ranking is due to his playing in a lower level than where he normally would be placed.
          Although the reason for his placement is understandable until he puts up the numbers with the proper class his ranking will probably suffer somewhat.
          But I don’t think he is losing sleep over it.

        • Can’t say I agree, but I appreciate the reply.

        • If one finds it unfair to keep a guy low because of a lot of Ks and not a lot of BBs, isnt it also unfair to keep a guy off the list because a few years ago he was struggling? The list is a snapshot of what the prospects look like right now and their potential upside/downside. Jones was productive in a low minor league setting but had some flaws that are generally red flags to future success, Holdzkom has had a history of struggling but was nothing but solid after an adjustment and brought his success to the majors. Pros and Cons to every prospect on the list.

      • I think any of the pitchers below him on the list so far could go above him but I don’t have much issue with the ranking other than being that high at his age…but he is a special case and how many guys have his stuff? In a way Holdzcom is a more conceived Glasnow but without as much of a breaking pitch…and look at Glasnow’s ceiling. What I saw from Hdz was pretty dominant, and Hurdle seemed to gain a lot of confidence in him very quickly…that says a lot.

        • Agreed. I can understand that argument, assuming logic goes that the other pitchers project – right now – as starters, and starters are generally more valuable than relievers. In this particular case, I would counter that a quality high-leverage reliever is likely a 1-2 win pitcher, which is value that very few starters below a good #3 can match. You can probably count the number of 1.5-2 WAR #4s and #5s on one hand.

          For that reason, I’d actually have Holdzkom higher than Tim’s #12 prospect.

          • Definitely…most of ranking prospects is about projection…and Holdzcom has a bizarre amount of upside for a near 28 year old…so he is just not a normal case. He could lose control and flame out by Mid-May too…the beauty of baseball.

            • I agree with these points, striking a balance between upside and risk in prospects is difficult and can be debated forever. Personally I think there is a bit too much focus on upside to the point where players more likely to provide future value, but be non-stars are under ranked. The counter point being that star level players are rare and thus more valuable.

              In comparing relievers to starters I find the second chart in this article helpful.

              http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/scouting-explained-the-20-80-scouting-scale/

              • Nice. That one’s getting bookmarked.

              • …and talent, projection and upside is one thing and how a player works at it is another…which can also be hard to predict. Football is different than baseball but I have been an Ohio St fan since I was a kid and I can’t count how many 3 star kids that wanted it more and worked their ass off and lived in the gym and film room outperformed 5 star guys that didn’t work as hard. It happens about every class. It’s so difficult to get the perfect blend of the two things.

                • I think evaluating make up is a huge part of the evaluation process. No accurate way of knowing how well this is done but when I hear scouts or former scouts interviewed, they will make off-hand references to some prospect being a make up guy and then list why. There appears to be an established body of knowledge that is unreported.

                  I may be splitting hair, but an evaluation that doesn’t take doesn’t attempt to account for make up/work ethic is deficient.

                  Side note, Urban Meyer great coach probably one of the best, but based on his prior work look for him to collect highly rated recruits with serious make up issues.

    • I disagree with you in that Holdzkom doesn’t deserve to be on the list. I doubt very much that all of the 12 ranked ahead of him will even make a major league roster at any point in their careers and he is there and was dominant. And we’re not talking about having a low ERA cause line drives got caught – we’re talking dominant with just about every hitter he faced. And let’s not forget the Pirates, with all of their minor league prospects, chose to promote him down the stretch over all of the others and the Pirates chose him to be the key 7th inning setup man over others on the roster.

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