INDIANAPOLIS – Neal Huntington said last Sunday that if the Pirates need to turn to a starter in Indianapolis, they’d be picking from Steven Brault or Drew Hutchison. He said that Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler weren’t quite ready yet. Of course, if Holmes keeps pitching the way he did in his start on Tuesday, he could shoot to the top of that list as the best option out of Indianapolis.

Holmes had one of his best starts of the year, giving up two runs on seven hits in seven innings, with no walks and eight strikeouts. The hits weren’t hard hits at all, and the runs were more a result of good sequencing. His sinker was on, sitting in the mid-90s, and while it wasn’t topping out at the upper 90s speeds he’s shown this year, it was just as effective in the 93-96 range. The cutter was also on, leading to a lot of his strikeouts.

That sinker/cutter approach is something Holmes has been using for less than a year now. He started throwing his sinker again last year, then switched to the pitch as his primary fastball in the second half after seeing better results than his four seamer. He added a combination of a cutter and a slider (“slutter”) at the end of the year, aimed at giving him a complement to the fastball, and a pitch that would break the opposite way.

That combination has worked for Holmes, giving him a strikeout pitch and also better control at times. However, it’s not leading to consistent results, which is totally understandable for a new approach that he’s been using for only a few months.

What I saw from Holmes on Tuesday was an example of how good he could be when his new approach was working right. It was also something he hasn’t shown consistently this year, outside of brief flashes.

“Today was really encouraging because I think it was a huge step forward for him,” Indianapolis manager Andy Barkett said after the start. “We’ve seen flashes of that but we haven’t seen it for seven innings like we did today. That would have played in the big leagues today. He could have gone to the big leagues and competed well.”

Holmes started off giving up a few weak hits, but quickly made an adjustment to get back on track, and cruised the rest of his start.

“He was able to get right back in the zone and he stayed there,” Barkett said. “He used his breaking ball very effectively. They had to respect his fastball. The cutter-slider he throws was sharp and the sharpest we’ve seen it all year. The kid has a lot of weapons. And when they’re all around the strike zone, and electric like they were today, he’s pretty tough to hit.”

Part of what was working so well for Holmes was attacking hitters from the start of the count. His stuff has some good movement, which means he doesn’t need to worry about being too fine with his pitches. He can work in the zone and still get ground ball outs, or swings and misses.

“I think I’m learning the mindset of going at hitters early, and not really trying to trick hitters, just going after them,” Holmes said. “I was able to get strikeouts with that. Have a mindset of not necessarily, get a strikeout, but to make a pitch. The pitches are better and the stuff’s there, so the strikeouts are coming.”

His catcher that night, Elias Diaz, summed up perfectly how nasty the new combination has been for him, offering high praise for the two-seam fastball.

“He throws a really good two-seam. A nasty two-seam,” Diaz said. “And then he throws the cutter. So the hitter doesn’t know what to do.”

Holmes is starting to get more comfortable with this approach, learning exactly how to use the combo, and getting a better feel for his stuff. That’s an encouraging sign, as the more consistent he can be, the closer he can get to taking this approach to the majors.

“I think it’s definitely almost there,” Holmes said of his new approach. “There was feel there with both of those pitches. I think once I can start executing the sinker and the cutter at the same time, which I kind of was able to do, is when things will finally start to fall in place. I’m able to make the cutter a little bigger when I need to for a strikeout, but I was also able to throw it for a strike early in the count, which helps because the sinker plays even better.”

The cutter was showing some versatility. He was able to throw it for strikes, but there were a few instances when he was ahead in the count where he would throw a sweeping slider, starting it in the zone and letting it run outside of the zone, getting opposing hitters to chase with two strikes. Holmes said that the cutter is a feel pitch for him, and he’s starting to get the feel for how to use it in different situations.

Holmes isn’t just a two-pitch guy though. He’s going to work off the fastball, and the cutter is the perfect complement to the pitch. But he also still has his curveball, which he uses later in the game to provide a different look, and his changeup. And aside from learning the cutter-sinker approach, he’s learning how to mix in his other pitches.

“I think he’s growing and learning that he has to establish his fastball,” Barkett said. “He’s also growing and learning that he has to use his breaking ball and he just can’t rely on that cutter-slider. It’s a very effective pitch when thrown right. But there are other weapons that are pretty good, too. And those have to stay in play. I think it’s learning the other team, learning the league, and learning yourself. I think you’re watching the evolution of a talented pitcher.”

He’s not ready right now, but if Holmes continues showing the comfort with his new approach that he showed in his last start, then it won’t be long until he becomes an option for the big league club. And now that he has a strikeout pitch, along with a mid-90s sinker that can touch upper 90s, he has moved ahead of the other starters currently in Triple-A, possibly being more than a future back of the rotation starter or a depth option for the majors.

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  1. Add Kingham to the rotation and it will be fun to watch. Will be interesting if Trevor Williams struggles. So far not impressed with the Hutchinson trade

    • Sure. Because five shutout innings against single A ball in a pitchers league by a guy with triple A experiences shows he’s ready to pitch in the majors.

  2. I love the 2-seamer/cutter combination. That’s got to be all sorts of confusing for hitters.

      • Is Kuhl’s slider a cutter? I thought it was a straight slider. Or are you suggesting Kuhl should go from slider to cutter? Because if the latter, I agree completely. Though, the point would be moot if he’d just locate his fastball a little better.

        In either case, Holmes has the edge of a curveball, which, if Kuhl has one, he definitely doesn’t throw it.

        • Kuhl throws a traditional slider, although he does throw it harder like a fastball to get the same effect when needed. He can also slow it down and make it a sweeping slider that goes out of the zone. His slider has been a very good pitch so far.

          Kuhl doesn’t have a curveball. Just two-seam, four-seam, slider, and changeup.

  3. Can he get lefties out at the big league level? The answer to this question will determine how good of a SP the Pirates have in him.

    • Agreed. This is really what held Morton back. I always thought he had good stuff, his ball moved. The talent was there. But when other teams loaded up with lefties he just struggled so badly. While Chuck and Clay are different pitchers I would say his success also very heavily relies on how he fares against lefties and can he come inside effectively against them.

  4. Slutter. Just terrific. This is good news for Pirates fans starving for it. Hopefully when Holmes comes up he command his pitches and get quicker outs rather than running up the pitch counts and struggling to make it out of the 5th. If his fastball/sinker/slutter and occasional curve get the job done God bless him. How does he generally fare against lefties? Will the slutter take the place of a change up?

  5. Tim if Holmes and Eppler continue their trajectory do they have a shot cracking the high side of BA or Keith Laws top 100? Or are those opinions set in stone by the time these gents get to AAA?

    • It would be difficult. The top 100 can be a bit overrated when it comes to determining good players. Those guys are obviously the guys who project to be the best prospects in the game, but it’s only a list of 100 players across 30 teams. That means you have a wide gap of players who could end up being more than a back of the rotation starter/bullpen/bench guy, but who would still fall short of the top 100 guys.

      Holmes might have the best shot, if someone sees him with number three upside and grades him higher based on a high floor. But they might go for more upside and more risk at the end of those lists. Eppler doesn’t really have a shot, since his upside would be a back of the rotation starter, and those guys usually don’t make top 100 lists.

      • I agree with you for the most part. The relevance of these lists, especially guys who sneak on back end is overrated. That being said, what about Tucker. I’m curious if he could crack top 100 going into next year if he continues to progress. I could see that.

        • He’d be the type of guy who could make it, since there’s upside to dream on with his big frame and power potential from a middle infield spot. Especially if he continues showing a good ability to steal bases.

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