Clay Holmes of the Yankees rode his sinker to glory

BOSTON. Clay Holmes dropped the sinker on his first attempt to catch the ball. He guessed that he was seven years old, and his fingers felt comfortable along the seams, not across. Over time, the double-seam grip will cause him to move down the back of the game and give him a pro career – if only he can keep it up.

Holmes, the breakout star of this blissful Yankees season, took seven years to reach the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who selected him out of Alabama high school in 2011. Holmes struggled in the majors but resisted the temptation to change. He already had his separator.

“I’ve had a lot of people say you have to use a short arm to make so many big mechanical changes,” Holmes said at Fenway Park Thursday before choking out the Boston Red Sox to save another Yankees win. . “I ended up going against it because I knew there was a risk of losing my sinker. That’s when I really thought, “The sinker will be my ticket.” I need to really figure out how to make it as good as possible.”

The field has been so dominant that Holmes will likely be named to his first All-Star team on Sunday when Major League Baseball announces pitchers and reservists. On Friday, Holmes had a 0.47 earned run average and 16 saves at 17 odds. He faced 142 batters and didn’t hit a single home run.

The All-Star Game, which takes place July 19 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, will end Holmes’ remarkable first year with the Yankees, who sent infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park to the Pirates last July. The Yankees felt the way Holmes always felt: a better version of his sinker, if used often enough, could make him a star.

“We love anyone who has exceptional performance on a particular field,” said general manager Brian Cashman. “One of the ways the industry has changed is to recognize that instead of trying to make all these different parts of your repertoire work and judge people that way in particular, do they do something exceptionally well with one serve? And if they do, gravitate toward it.”

Holmes is the only pitcher in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw his fastball at least 80% of the time – and by fastball, of course, he means a sinking two-way ball. Even when he throws a four-way car that should stay straight, Holmes still sinks the ball.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just can’t get the ball to stay on the line.”

Holmes began studying the movement of his sinker before he was traded to the Yankees, making sure the TrackMan device was collecting data on every bullpen session. He learned that he didn’t have to handle the field so well; he could confidently throw it over the plate and still be out of the game.

Now that he has nearly perfected the sinker, Holmes no longer needs to practice it while playing ball. This is good news for teammates.

“At first I hated playing ball with him, and I wouldn’t have done it when he first came here because all he did was rip the weights,” said Michael King. “And now that I feel like he’s more comfortable, he’s not working on it that much. It just comes loose so it’s easy to catch it.”

For generations, the sinking fastball has been a field for those who value efficiency and soft touch—think Tommy John, Orel Hershiser and Derek Lowe, or underwater pitchers Kent Tekulwe and Dan Quizenberry.

Holmes, however, looks more like Kevin Brown, a tall, right-handed intimidator with a weight that seemed heavy, even mean. Brown, who played on multiple teams from 1986 to 2005, stood out in his day for the ferocity of his sinker. Tom Prince, a former major league catcher who coached Pittsburgh, told Holmes that his pitching worked the same way.

According to King, Holmes releases the pitch so high that he deceives hitters who rarely, if ever, see the pitch drop so much at that angle.

“If you’re playing a loader, you never want the hitter to see the bottom of the ball because if the ball sinks into you, you want to get under it to hit it,” King said. “You never see the bottom of the ball from him, because from his hands it just flies straight down. You can only see the top of the ball and if you make contact it will be a ground ball. That’s why you get so many ugly hits from elite hitters.”

The sinker has fallen out of fashion in recent years, partly because the strike zone is narrower at the edges, but mostly because hitters have adapted to it. The launch angle craze—essentially rocking low pitch to hit more home runs—led many pitchers to emphasize high fastballs and curves.

The Yankees think hitters will adapt to this approach. They want to get ahead of the next major adjustment, so they have targeted and cultivated movers. In addition to Holmes, they acquired King, Vandi Peralta, Miguel Castro, Albert Abreu and the injured Zach Britton and Jonathan Loaisiga from outside the organization.

Everyone is throwing heavy weights, and when hitters drive that pitch into the ground, the Yankee’s improved infield defense usually takes care of the rest.

“I really think we’ve just found ways to maybe adjust what we’re throwing in relation to what the league is looking for,” pitching coach Matt Blake said. “At the time it was popularized at the top of the zone, teams didn’t really train their attackers on how to deal with it, so it was kind of like free kicks there – free hits and misses. Now many more teams are optimized to better handle this field and you may be seeing a little changing of the guard.”

Several teammates are due to join Holmes in the All-Star Game, matching the Yankees’ best-ever major record of 61-23 through Friday, nearly the best in club history. If the season ends the way the Yankees hope, Holmes will likely end up on the hill at the end, a nod to an unwavering belief in the gift of a lifetime.