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.