TAMPA — Clay Holmes’ sinker is a double-edged sword.
Part of what makes it so good — the dip, duck and dive movement that often baffles hitters — is also what makes it never too far away from losing control if something is slightly off-kilter in his delivery.
The sinker’s tightrope walk, and perhaps the injuries that may have affected it, played a role in Holmes going from a dominant All-Star closer in the first half of last season to a much bigger question mark over the final two months.
The pitch has been described by some as a bowling ball. Now Holmes is trying to put up bumpers for it to ensure he is able to harness the sinker more consistently this season.
“It’s crazy just how small differences can make an impact,” Holmes said this week. “But the more you learn with my delivery and with the pitch in general, you just learn how to make adjustments better and keep yourself within guardrails and know what you need to do when certain things happen or when the ball is moving a certain way. It’s just a matter of continuing to keep myself within the guardrails and knowing what those are and try to push forward.”
Of the 976 pitches he threw last season, Holmes threw a sinker 80.1 percent of the time. It graded out as one of the game’s best, accruing a run value of -10, tied for the eighth-best sinker of any pitcher in the majors, per Baseball Savant.
Opposing batters hit just .200 with a .256 slugging percentage and 44 strikeouts against the pitch
What makes it so special is its movement.
In 2022, Holmes’ sinker averaged 23.9 inches of vertical movement while coming to the plate at 97 mph. It had 4.1 more inches of drop than similar sinkers at his velocity, according to Baseball Savant, which ranked 17th among qualified pitchers.
Holmes’ sinker also averaged 16.8 inches of horizontal movement, with 1.8 more inches of break than similar sinkers at his velocity.
“For him, being consistent with the delivery because of how much movement there is is really important,” pitching coach Matt Blake said. “He’s got a big margin for error in terms of just throwing at the big part of the plate. When the delivery got a little sideways on him and the [arm] slot lowered a little bit [last season], the visual was a little less deceptive as well and the ball kind of flattened out a little bit more and he was missing off the plate.
“So it was kind of a cascading effect of the delivery wasn’t lined up and it was steep downhill. Guys were either able to get underneath it and hit it in the air, or it was flat and running across the plate instead of downhill, so the visual was easier to track. I think they all kind of go hand in hand.”
Blake also pointed to the back injury that Holmes dealt with in the second half of last season — plus “a little bit of a knee issue,” he said — that led to the right-hander cutting back on the amount of work he did off the mound between appearances.
The problem with that?
“It’s one of those things where your sinker can feel great playing catch with it,” Holmes said. “But until you see a hitter in a high-intensity [situation], you don’t truly get your exact feel for it. You know your delivery and the places you need to be to give yourself a good chance to be successful. But to get that fine-tuned feel, it just takes games and seeing hitters and seeing swings on it.”
The results showed.
Through his first 44 games, Holmes had a 1.20 ERA with 48 strikeouts and 12 walks in 45 innings.
Then, across his final 18 games of the regular season — during which his back and shoulder issues cropped up — Holmes posted a 5.79 ERA with 17 strikeouts and eight walks in 18 ⅔ innings.
Holmes attributed the struggles to his release point creeping downward and starting to get more rotational in his delivery.
“Every situation can be a little different,” Holmes said. “It could be grip-wise, pitch-wise, something going on physically. Just learning the ins and outs to how my body responds to especially the kind of workload I did last year and staying on top of those things. You try to stay one step ahead.”
Now, entering his second full season with Holmes, Blake said he would encourage the reliever to reduce his flat-ground work in favor of throwing off the mound. Of course, that comes with finding the right balance — getting enough reps to keep him in rhythm without overdoing it.
Last season, Holmes threw 63 ⅔ innings, which is shy of the career-high 70 he threw in 2021. But unlike in 2021, most of his 2022 innings came in high-leverage spots that added some extra intensity.
Holmes also hurried back from a shoulder capsule strain to make the Yankees’ playoff roster — though without the ideal buildup, which led to some controversy when he wasn’t available for Game 3 of the ALDS.
Because of that and the heavy workload, he took a few more weeks off than normal to start his offseason before getting back to work.
Holmes said he now feels “100 percent,” and manager Aaron Boone said Holmes will be “full-bore” this spring.
Holmes made his debut on Thursday (striking out one in a scoreless inning of work), giving him four more weeks to continue fine-tuning that delivery before the regular season begins.
“It’s been a process over the last couple years, learning what my best sinker is, what I’m doing to cause it, what that release feels like and looks like, what the numbers say,” Holmes said. “It’s never something where it’s just like, ‘You know this and you can be a robot and do it.’ Just kind of learning how to stay within windows and what things look like and feel like so you know how to make adjustments.”
Jammin’ with Bernie
Bernie Williams arrived at Yankees camp earlier this week as a guest instructor, and has been a visible presence while spending time around the team’s outfielders — including Jasson Dominguez, who just turned 20 last month, but is one of the more intriguing prospects in his first major league spring training.
Williams’ first big league camp was in 1989, when he was a slightly older 20-year-old.
“I think [the most intimidating part] was just seeing all the veterans,” Williams said. “Because the veterans are going to dictate how comfortable you’re going to be as a young player.”
While Williams was still getting his first real look at Dominguez — “He’s built like a tank,” Williams said — and getting to know him, he liked what he had seen so far.
“He’s very eager to be here,” Williams said. “He’s taking it in. He’s got a good attitude, from everything that I’ve heard so far. He’s very coachable. He wants to learn.
“The organization has their thoughts about him and where he can go, but I think he has thoughts of his own where he can make it. I think he’s on a great path right now.”
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Two promising arms flex in
It was somewhat of a surprise that pitching prospects Will Warren and Clayton Beeter did not receive invites to major league camp this spring after both finished last season at Double-A Somerset.
But the Yankees brought both over from minor league camp on Sunday to get their feet wet in a split-squad game against the Braves.
Warren, a 23-year-old right-hander, is the organization’s No. 7 prospect, per Baseball America. Against the Braves, he gave up just one hit across two scoreless innings.
“Sharp, man,” Boone said. “Filled up the zone. He was strong.”
Beeter, a 24-year-old right-hander, came over from the Dodgers in the Joey Gallo trade and is now the Yankees’ No. 22 prospect, according to Baseball America. He struck out three and walked two in two scoreless innings against the Braves.
“He’s an interesting guy,” Boone said. “He’s got really good stuff. He came over and pitched well for us last year. I was excited to see him come in today and pitch. He’s got a really good breaking ball, good arm. … It’s a swing-and-miss kind of stuff he’s got.”