First Pitch: The Questions Surrounding Clay Holmes After Tommy John Return

January is always a slow month in baseball. It’s always the month where we do the top prospect countdown, which fills in the void due to the lack of news. And each year I try to do a First Pitch article expanding on that player, with a topic that relates to the player.

When it comes to Clay Holmes, who we profiled today, it’s difficult to come up with a topic. I could discuss returning from Tommy John, but Holmes has already returned. He’s only thrown 36.1 innings in his return, with 23 coming in High-A. So he’s largely untested, although the stuff looked good on the field this year. But being untested brings up a lot of the normal development questions that a player would have, only magnified to a greater extent due to the long layoff. Then there’s the question of why he didn’t get selected in the Rule 5 draft, with any answers being speculative. There’s also the topic of where he starts off and ends up this year, and whether he could be added to the 40-man roster next off-season.

It was easy focusing on Garcia last night, because we had an entire year of reporting to base that topic on. The reporting for the last two seasons on Holmes has largely been his recovery and rehab from Tommy John surgery. Now that this is over, we’re left with all of those little questions. First Pitch can be a pretty informal article, so rather than a full article on one subject, let’s fire away at the small questions above.

How did the Tommy John recovery go?

Holmes was limited this year, suffering a minor setback which didn’t allow him to make his High-A return until early July. He was shut down in mid-August due to a need to reduce the workload. It’s hard to compare him to anyone else, since the Pirates were taking Tommy John rehab ultra conservative this year, and the only other guy who could have been a comparison was Jameson Taillon, who went down with a hernia injury.

That said, Holmes should be good to go at the start of the 2016 season, ready to pitch a full year. I’d imagine they’d limit his innings somewhat, but that’s easy to do when a guy is expected to pitch in the minors all year.

How did his stuff look?

The best part about his return was that he still had the solid velocity, sitting 92-95 MPH through his rehab and his return. He doesn’t post great strikeout numbers, and will need a little bit of refinement to his curve in order to improve in that regard. The most encouraging thing here was the control.

Back in 2014, the biggest thing I was looking forward to with Holmes was his second half improvement from 2013 with his walk rate. He had a high walk rate for most of the year, but really settled down in his final 51.2 innings, posting a 3.8 BB/9 during that span. At the time, the Pirates were seeing some success with guys in West Virginia improving their control in the second half. Nick Kingham had just done the same thing, and followed up with a breakout year in Bradenton. The hope was that Holmes would do the same.

He not only carried this control over after a year and a half off, but he also improved on those numbers, with a 2.7 BB/9 ratio in his limited time. This is one of those question marks due to his small sample size. Was this legit, or just good fortune due to time off? From what I saw throughout the year, the control looked improved, and Holmes had plenty of time to work on his mechanics to get to that point. This, plus the return in velocity, bodes well for Holmes going forward.

Why wasn’t he taken in the Rule 5 draft?

If I had to guess, and that’s all I can do here, it’s because he has pitched 23 innings in non-rehab appearances in the last two years. You add him, and you’re burning his age 23 season with another lost year. Then you send him down at age 24, and try to get him back in the mix of starting, even though he has only thrown over 59.1 innings in a season once, and threw 119 innings four seasons ago (by 2017). On paper, Holmes looks like a great add for his long-term potential. But when you think about the Rule 5 process, it didn’t make sense to add him.

Will he be protected next year?

Holmes returned with his old velocity and good control. The biggest thing in 2016 would be staying healthy all year. If he can do that and pitch a full season as a starter, plus finish up in Altoona, then the Pirates will have to protect him. The theory from above will be gone, and there would be no reason to leave a guy with his upside unprotected, assuming he still has the same upside.

Where will Holmes start the 2016 season?

This is tricky. He only threw 23 innings in Bradenton this year, so there’s a chance he could return to the level. That said, Bradenton projects to be full, with guys moving up from West Virginia like Yeudy Garcia, Stephen Tarpley, Austin Coley, and others. The Pirates could certainly start Holmes off in Bradenton to get back on track, and then move him up to Altoona. That would probably require some piggyback work from the Bradenton rotation, which wouldn’t be as difficult if they’re limiting his innings early in the season. There’s also the benefit here of avoiding cold weather the first six weeks of the season.

One thing I do think will happen is that Holmes will reach Altoona by the end of the year. That could set him up for Altoona/Indianapolis in 2017 at the age of 24, and Indianapolis/MLB in 2018 at the age of 25, with the upside to join what could shape up to be a very strong rotation.

Any other questions? You could ask them in the comments here, although we will also have another live Q&A tomorrow (Wednesday) around noon. Check back for that.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #19 – Clay Holmes. Continuing the countdown today with Holmes. We will be rolling out a player per day. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.

**Pirates Announce Their 2016 Performance Team

**Winter Leagues: Updates on New Players, Playoffs and Panama

  • Good idea on the format, Tim.

  • Wonder what innings level the Pirates will target for Holmes this year? In a regular year I know they would not want to increase innings more that 30 or so, but think it the increase is greater for TJ guys, otherwise they’d never make it to 200.

    • Even though he didn’t make his first start until late June, he started pitching in Extended Spring Training games a month earlier. He also pitched in the Fall Instructional League, so he MAY have had more innings not on paper than he actually had on paper. That will be considered when figuring out his workload this year. If I was forced to guess, I’d say he would be in the 105-115 IP range.

  • As I stated yesterday, I am anxiously awaiting his return to a full throwing schedule in 2016. There are 7 guys in the Top 20 P2 Prospects that could impact the pitching staff of the Pirates in 2016 and 2017, and I count Clayton Holmes as one of those guys. Coming out of TJ rehab he has kept the mid-90’s velocity, has shown better Command/Control, and has increased his GB percentage which was excellent before the injury. A SSS, but I imagine he was one of those guys you struggled with on overall placement in the Top 50? How close was John Kuchno to making the Top 50?

    I do see the benefit of the Pirates keeping him right in Bradenton for the first 5 or 6 starts of the year avoiding the cold weather in Altoona, and then being promoted to AA in early May.

  • This article got me thinking about the foolishness of choosing pitching as a career in sports for an elite level athlete.

    Sure it’s great if you’re one of the fortunate one’s to remain healthy and make it through the gauntlet of minor league baseball. But what are the odds?

    Seeking a career in baseball is a study in frustration in and of itself, but adding in the likelihood of injury that Pitchers face to the mix must make it downright maddening for these guys.

    My hats off to Holmes, Taillon, and all the other Pitchers who are persevering through development while trying to get and remain healthy. I’m certainly rooting for you guys to achieve your goal of making it to the big leagues.

    • Hitting a baseball is no day at the beach, either. 🙂

    • Risk vs.Reward. Look at the money that is being thrown at these guys. One contract plus the pension and this guy could golf the rest of his life.

      • Heck, invest that signing bonus money wisely and they’ll be set for life by the time their 40 at the latest.

        My point is of all the positions in baseball, Pitcher is the hardest one to reach the big leagues because of injury.

        • I get your point but it’s not like many players have a choice between if they want to try to make it as a pitcher or a position player.

    • “choosing pitching as a career” – you don’t choose to be a pitcher, it chooses you.