ALTOONA, PA – When working through the grind of a complete minor league season, one of the goals that most players want to accomplish is to stay healthy for the entire year. In the case of Tyler Eppler and Clay Holmes, both did a great job accomplishing that goal this season for the Altoona Curve. Eppler led the Eastern League in innings pitched at 162.1, and Holmes threw 142 total innings between the regular season and playoffs while making his comeback from Tommy John surgery.
Everything else follows staying healthy, including pitch development and results. For both righties, the results were mostly mixed this season. Eppler finished the regular season with a 3.99 ERA, a jump from what he had been used to in his first two professional seasons, but he still controlled the strike zone extremely well, only walking 1.8 batters/nine innings.
In Holmes’ case, he had a 4.22 ERA while having some mixed results with walks and strikeouts throughout the season. He showed flashes of brilliance, but he also had times of struggle and high pitch counts.
In both tall right-handed pitchers’ cases, it was as if they needed just a little something extra to help get them over the hump, and that little extra something came in the form of a fourth pitch for both of them.
Less than a month ago, Altoona Curve Pitching Coach Justin Meccage began working with the duo on a power slider/cutter type of pitch to help complement their current arsenal.
“I would say we started introducing the pitch in their throwing programs within the last couple of weeks,” Meccages said. “In the last two games, they started using it a little more often.”
They didn’t want to go as far as to naming the pitch just yet, as Meccage was simply looking for a pitch that is harder than a curve ball and goes more side-to-side.
“If it ends up being a slider, it’s a slider. If it ends up being a cutter, a cutter. We’re just looking for a fourth pitch that can be a little bit harder and allow them to have a better mentality with it.”
Both pitchers started working on the pitch at the same time, and both are throwing it between 88-91 MPH with similar action.
“Both have taken to it really quickly – quicker than I’ve seen a lot of guys do,” Meccage said.
Eppler needed a pitch to help get hitters off of his fastball, as he said that hitters knew that his fastball was coming in certain counts.
“It’s something that is a little different that looks like a fastball but gets more swings-and-misses,” Eppler said. “We don’t really need swing and misses, we just want them to miss with the barrel really. That’s the main thing. It’s worked out great for me so far and has made a big difference.
He categorized the pitch as a power slider and said that the most important thing with the pitch has been keeping it down in the strike zone. The fact that it looks like a fastball coming out then has that side-to-side break makes it a dangerous pitch for Eppler.
“Especially with first pitch, I tend to get ambushed a good bit,” he said. “They know my scouting report and how many strikes I throw. Now when guys get in there, and they think that this guy is going to fastball right away, even then with that first pitch, I can use the power slider. It’s something I can use in my advantage.”
Use that to his advantage he did in his last start of the season. The Curve needed a win to get into the playoffs, and Eppler threw six scoreless innings, helping his team to an extra inning shutout win to clinch a playoff spot.
“I’ve got that pitch, and I know I can throw it for a strike,” Eppler said referencing that final start of the season. “It’s been a big deal. I got behind in some counts, and I used that pitch to my advantage. We got some weak contact and swings and misses. It worked well.”
As for Clay Holmes, the new slider/cutter is in addition to both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, curveball, and changeup. Holmes added the two-seamer earlier this season, looking for more ground ball outs and more action out of his fastball, and it quickly turned into his best pitch.
Holmes has been working on quite a few different things of late, including the new pitch and some timing, mechanical adjustments within his windup that allows him to fully get everything he can out of his arm strength.
“I have less movement with my hands now, allowing me to get the ball out and let my arm do its thing,” Holmes said after his playoff start last Thursday. “I sped my arm up. Timing was good tonight, so I could out there and compete.”
With all of these changes in place, Holmes moved to adding the fourth pitch to his arsenal. Meccage recently said that the slider/cutter pitch could soon be his best secondary pitch, and it has already been a “great, great addition”.
“We wanted something a little harder , and I wanted to get a feel for a fourth pitch,” Holmes said. “It complements my two-seamer, especially to lefties that start leaning out over the plate. I can throw that and get ground balls with it. It’s something that will really help me with lefties in the long run.”
In his last start in Game Two of the playoff series against Akron, Holmes did a great job utilizing his two-seam fastball to get ground balls, then mixing in the new slider to keep them off-balanced. Ultimately, the slider/cutter will have action that goes the opposite direction of his two-seamer, making it a great complementary piece to his best pitch.
“My two-seamer going to be my best pitch,” Holmes said. “It’s been huge for me. To know I can get ground balls with it early, I’m very confident with it. The velocity is still on it, and the movement is there. At the end of the day, it’s my best pitch, and the new slider will help.”
In the end, Meccage went on to say that getting these guys to throw a fourth pitch is exactly what they want in the majors. All of the talk we’ve heard this year was about Tyler Glasnow’s changeup, which is his third pitch. A third pitch is an absolute minimum if you want to become a starting major league pitcher. That fourth pitch is more ideal, especially when you don’t have Glasnow’s stuff with the first two pitches.
“We’re just trying to put these kids in the best possible scenario for the majors,” Meccage said. “If you can have four pitches, it puts you in a much better situation in the big leagues as a maybe league starter. Ray [Searage] talks a lot about starters having four pitches. That’s the next step.”
For both Eppler and Holmes, the season may be over, but these recent additions will be extremely helpful for 2017 and the future.