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.