“Well, the most dominant reliever in the sport gets to go to LA for the All-Star Game.”
That was how Aaron Boone informed Clay Holmes, the Yankees’ indomitable closer, that he had made his first All-Star team. Holmes, showcasing his unshaken demeanor, mostly just nodded, smiled and replied “sweet” and “glad it’s as a Yankee.”
Like most 29-year-olds making their first trip to the All-Star Game, Holmes has had a long and winding path to the top. A ninth-round pick by the Pirates in 2011, the Slocomb, AL native didn’t reach the big leagues until 2018. Along the way, the Pirates gave up on trying to make him a starting pitcher, watched him put up a 6.41 ERA in 2019 as a 26-year-old throwing 19.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and eventually traded him to the Yankees for infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park.
Now, in his first full year with the Yankees, everything has changed. Holmes owns the lowest ERA (0.46) of any qualified reliever in the league. There are 12 relief pitchers who have completed at least 25 innings this season without permitting a home run. Among that dozen, Holmes’ 39.1 innings are the most. He’s also the best reliever on the planet at getting ground balls, by a wide margin. Holmes’ 82.7% ground ball rate is followed on the leaderboard by St. Louis’ Neil Pallante, who’s at a much more typical 64.8%. Entering the final week of play before the All-Star break, Holmes is tied with teammate Michael King — whose All-Star snub is wholly egregious — in Wins Above Replacement for AL relievers.
The road to Holmes’ resurgence has been paved with sinkers. Not just the occasional sinker to coax a double play, a truck load of sinkers, in every situation and every count. In June 2021, his final complete month in Pittsburgh, Holmes went to the sinker on 50% of his pitches. By September of that year, when he was fully entrenched in the Yankees’ bullpen, that usage had skyrocketed to 75.8%.
This year, hitters are getting a sinker from Holmes 82% of the time. In dissecting the numbers, you can see why. Entering play on Monday, Holmes has thrown 450 sinkers in 2022. A grand total of two of them have been hit for extra bases, both doubles. Hitters are mustering a .156 batting average, .174 slugging percentage and whiffing on 29.3% of their swings against the cartoonish pitch. An astonishing 28 of Holmes’ 40 strikeouts have ended with the sinker.
There are pitchers whose sinkers possess more movement, and plenty who throw theirs harder than Holmes throws his. But Holmes and the Yankees’ pitching gurus have clearly figured out the best way for him to harness it. The same is true for Nestor Cortes Jr. and his cutter.
Like Holmes and the fall-off-the-table sinker, Cortes has started throwing his cutter much more often. Last year, it came out on 23.6% of his total pitches. That’s up to 36.1% now, earning him a free trip to Los Angeles to hang out with the other best pitchers in the league.
In the video posted by the Yankees’ social media team showing Cortes’ reaction to his All-Star selection, Boone asks the breakout pitcher to remember a conversation they had in spring training.
“The one where you told me I was going to be an All-Star?” Cortes replies.
That conversation proved to be prophetic. Thanks in large part to the cutter — which has also experienced a slight velocity bump — Cortes is fifth among qualified AL starters in WHIP (1.03), seventh in ERA (2.74), ninth in opponents’ batting average (.211) and 12th in WAR (1.7). Cortes didn’t even throw a cutter until rejoining the Yankees in 2021, another win for pitching coach Matt Blake and the club’s pitching development.
By trusting the pitch against right-handed batters, Cortes discovered the key to unlocking his success. Thirty-seven percent of his pitches to righties now are a cutter, a ten percentage point increase from the 27% he posted in 2021. They’ve responded by hitting .185 against it, and the pitch has also become Cortes’ best put-away pitch for right-handers.
Everyone’s favorite mustachioed man has also made notable strides in two important facets of pitching. He’s throwing way more first-pitch strikes (69.4% compared to 59.9% last year) and is getting batters to chase his pitches out of the strike zone much more regularly. For anyone who was watching them in 2019, the idea of Cortes starting a playoff game and Holmes closing out would have been straight up ludicrous.
Both pitchers were struggling to even stay in the majors at that point of their careers, with Holmes using his scarce number of MLB innings to post one of the highest walk rates of anybody in the league. That same year, Cortes was, according to WAR, the worst pitcher to whom the Yankees gave at least 30 innings. After the year, the Yankees traded him to Seattle for nothing but money to use on international signings. In early 2021, the team saw enough things that they liked to bring him back on a minor league deal, which is now paying major dividends.
Any number of things could happen to Holmes and Cortes over the course of their careers. Whether or not they end up in the World Series this year, etching their names into an unlikely spot in Yankee lore, they’ll have some great stories of hardship and determination to share on the plane ride to the All-Star Game.