ALTOONA – A year ago at this time, Clay Holmes was returning from Tommy John surgery. He was progressing away from bullpen sessions, and just getting to the point where he could pitch to live hitters in game situations. One year later, Holmes has no restrictions, and is starting his season in Altoona, getting bumped up a level despite just 23 innings in Bradenton last year.

The Pirates restricted Holmes last year, shutting him down early after 36.1 innings total between the GCL and Bradenton, along with all the starts he made during extended Spring Training. He didn’t return for the Fall Instructional League, getting a lot of rest over the off-season, before returning this year for a full season.

Despite the lack of official innings last year, Holmes did gain one big thing from his Tommy John recovery: a changeup.

Holmes had a good fastball coming up through the system before his Tommy John surgery. The pitch sat 91-93 MPH before the surgery at the age of 20. He bumped it up to 92-95 after the surgery. He also showed better control with the pitch in the second half of the 2013 season, and the control improvements carried over to the 2015 season. He had a good curveball which could generate some strikeouts. But he was missing that third pitch.

Coming back from Tommy John, Holmes worked a lot on his changeup with pitching coach Scott Elarton. He struggled with the pitch in the past, but after finding a new grip that worked for him, he was able to get comfortable with the offering.

“[Elarton] had a really good changeup, and he would just show me some grips that he liked,” Holmes said. “That was beneficial, and I think I found something that’s been working so far, and that I like.”

Throwing the pitch more often has also helped Holmes get comfortable with the offering. He showed some good results last night in Altoona, leaning on the pitch heavily, and getting a lot of swings and misses. Last night’s game showed the importance of that third pitch, since Holmes didn’t have good control of the curveball due to the cold weather.


“I probably had more feel for the changeup tonight than the curveball,” Holmes said. “It was a little hard for me to grip the curveball tonight with the weather. The changeup feel is there, so I kind of went to that a little more than the curveball.”

It’s not always going to be cold during the season to impact his grip on the curveball. That was also one of the few times Holmes ever threw in the cold, and after the game he said it was the coldest game he’s thrown in. But there will be times where one of his pitches won’t be working, which is why having that third pitch is important. The changeup is also obviously a key pitch for Holmes to remain a starter in the long-term.

Holmes still needs consistency with all of his pitches. His fastball has some sink at times, looking like a two-seamer with more velocity. Other times it is flat and up in the zone. His curveball has some bite to it, sitting in the low-80s, but that bite isn’t consistent. And the changeup looked good last night, with some late break that was fooling some opposing hitters.

Eventually, Holmes has the potential to be a middle of the rotation starter, with the frame to go 200 innings per year, and the three pitch combo to get a lot of strikeouts and a lot of ground balls as a starter. That said, he’s going to need to improve the consistency of his pitches. Last night was a sign that he’s made some big strides with the changeup in the last year. If he makes similar strides with the consistency of his other pitches, then he’ll be a guy to watch, with a chance to make the majors as early as the second half of the 2017 season.

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  1. Even though the Pirates have plenty of arms ahead of Holmes, I think it is very important that he and others develop so that Neal has the flexibility to make trades.

    After finishing all of the season preview articles, it is startling how much the talent levels decrease as you move from AAA down to low-A. This shouldn’t be a surprise as the highest ranking prospects from the draft pool (Glasnow, Bell, Meadows, Taillon, McGuire & Kingham) all come from when our losing teams were earning top 15 choices.

    In order to keep the window open beyond the current crop, Neal is going to have to demonstrate the ability to do something he failed at in the beginning of his tenure – trade established veterans for top prospects.

    • To a degree you’re right, but they will still rely heavily on drafting and developing players no matter where their draft position resides. The Cardinals are a good model for Pirates to emulate.

        • Usually, not always, see J Heyward. Even so, the core of their team is players drafted and/or developed by their organization.

          • Yes but my understanding was that the Cards offered a competitive deal, Heyward chose the Cubs because he saw a better future with them. And we couldn’t even tender an offer for a player like Mike Leake – who we needed.

            • It’s debatable the Pirates “needed” a middling SP for 5/80 when they’ve demonstrated the ability to turn around lower priced guys successfully.

              Yes, teams like the Cardinals and Cubs have higher revenues, thus more options are available. But my point is their success is founded in ability to draft and develop talent. It would be inaccurate to state they are spending their way to success.

            • So we give STL credit for (without proof) offering Heyward a better deal and he just went where he wanted to go.

              But PGH? Fuck those guys, if we dont know what they offered someone we should assume they didnt offer a decent deal at all.

              And its not a reference to Leake really, but to any of the guys we let walk or didnt sign. Anytime PGH doesnt sign a guy, anyone who mentions how they did have an offer out to said player is met with “yeah, sure some crap offer”.

      • Since the Cardinals have got somewhere around 3-4 times the MLB value out of their recent drafts than the Pirates have I would concur that the Pirates could learn a thing or two from the Cards in relation to this. The Cards drafting and development strategy is incredible and shows up every year in the standings. They look, at least for now, like a beaten down injured team, but the season is a long one…I dont think they will, necessarily, be as good as they have been in the past, but they will still be a hard team to beat.

      • I doubt they were looking to score prospects. Niese wouldn’t have been my top choice, but we’ll see how it works out.

        • Meh, not too sure one way or the other…perhaps they just got tired of Morton and figured Niese had more upside and getting him would allow them to shed Chuck…which basically means the Pirates traded Walker for David Whitehead.

          I like Niese, but I think when you’re dealing solid veterans…you shouldn’t be getting reclamation projects in return.

          The Pirates were in an odd position this past off-season, they had the veterans to deal, but not the chomping-at-the-bit, upper-level prospects ready to fill in. That, combined with the fact they were trying to trade guys heading into their walk-year crippled their leverage.

        • I do not like the Niese for Walker deal as I am not a huge fan of a pitcher for a plus regular. The Pirates have shown a penchant for getting a lot out of pitchers so there is hope with Niese, but I think there also would have been hope in any other pitcher they brought in–or they could have re-signed Happ. I just struggle trading a 2+win regular–2.4 last year and basically projected between a 2.5-2.8 WAR player this year–for a pitcher who isn’t of a level that you can really expect the same WAR in return, despite the fact he only pitches every 5th day.

          • Depending on how you view Walker moving forward, he actually isnt a sure fire “plus” regular. Middle of the pack in WAR with a serious platoon problem.

            Guy should really be playing 3B over 2B.

      • Not really sure Walker for prospects if a good use of that resource. You’ve got anywhere from 2-5 prospects in AAA nearly ready for ML action. Signed the OF for multiple years.

        So really, in that scenario if im losing a ML talent i want to fill a hole more than just getting young prospects back. Dislike Niese as said filling is totally fair, but id take a SP in that move over 1-2 prospects not ML ready really. Otherwise we either roll with Morton or have an even bigger hole in the rotation.

        • Under ideal circumstances, I disagree.

          Soon-to-be-departing veterans should be traded for prospects. The better the veteran, the higher-ceiling, more developed the prospect(s) should be.

          Unfortunately, I think the return gotten for Walker was fallout from the glut of minor league pitching injuries. Without those…or even if they were lessened a bit, the team could have legitimately been entering 2016 with a rotation of:


          In other words, the minors would have fed the ML roster to the point where trading Walker for Niese made no sense.

          That wasn’t the case though…due to injuries, the Pirates were caught with the pants down and in need of rotation help. So, I understand the trade, and I’m down on Niese at all, but I think a winning, low-spending organization is going to best succeed by converting its exiting talent into prospects.

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