Yankees Magazine: Closer’s Mentality

Before joining the Yankees, Clay Holmes was never given the opportunity to fill a role that suits him perfectly

April 8th, 2024
Since arriving in a 2021 trade, Clay Holmes has entrenched himself in the closer’s role, such that manager Aaron Boone barely needs to spend any time contemplating the ninth inning. Whatever job security the right-hander has earned, he takes nothing for granted behind the scenes. “I never want to say I have it figured out because that’s when you’ll be humbled real quick,” he says. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

For all the breezy, laid-back vibes of Spring Training, when the scents of grilled meats and sunscreen waft across the Yankees’ complex at George M. Steinbrenner Field every March, it can be a stressful time for manager Aaron Boone. There are dozens of Major and Minor League players to keep tabs on, new faces and personalities to get to know, split-squad games taking place simultaneously in different ballparks and untimely injuries to deal with. The games may not count, but the overall task can be more hectic than the regular season. There are important decisions to be made, interviews with the media to be held, closed-door meetings to be conducted … sometimes all before noon.

One important part of the team that Boone didn’t have to spend much time at all thinking about this spring was his closer situation. While many skippers throughout the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues navigated the choppy waters of ever-evolving bullpen hierarchies, answering questions about which reliever (or relievers) would potentially handle the ninth-inning duties come April, Boone spent all of about 30 seconds discussing the subject. Much like his predecessors Joe Girardi and Joe Torre experienced during Mariano Rivera’s ninth-inning reign, Boone could enjoy the luxury of arriving in camp and turning his focus elsewhere, knowing that in , he has someone he can depend on to finish off victories this season.

“He’s our closer,” Boone said after Holmes’ first appearance of Spring Training, a perfect fourth inning against the Mets on March 5. “We need him to be great for us to be what we expect to be as a team. That’s our expectation for him. He knows that. He’s one of the real dynamic relievers in the game, especially when he really gets it rolling, as we’ve seen over the last few years.”

Holmes has earned his manager’s trust by quietly going out and doing his job as well as just about any closer in baseball. Since coming to New York from Pittsburgh at the 2021 trade deadline, the 6-foot-5 right-hander has been a steady presence at the end of games, posting back-to-back seasons with at least 20 saves. He avoided the injury bug that bit so many Yankees in ’23, making a team-high 66 appearances, and his 2.86 ERA in 63 innings of work contributed to a major league–best 3.34 ERA for the Yanks’ relief corps.

It has been an impressive run for the 31-year-old, even more so when considering that, prior to putting on the pinstripes, Holmes had never been given an opportunity to be a closer. What he did have was one incredibly effective pitch, and the drive to see just how far it could take him.


Somewhat lost in the Yankees’ disappointing 82-80 campaign was the fact that the club finished 2023 on a strong note, going 17-10 in September. Holmes pitched in 12 of those victories, recording eight saves while allowing just one earned run on five hits, earning American League Reliever of the Month honors for the second time in his career and helping the Yankees avoid what would have been their first losing season since 1992.

Holmes’ sterling September came on the heels of a rough patch from Aug. 13 to Aug. 29, a six-outing stretch in which he gave up nine earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. A more inexperienced pitcher, or a more volatile one, might have freaked out after seeing his ERA balloon from 2.01 to 3.42 that late in the season. But a big part of Holmes’ success has been his ability to compartmentalize things in his head and maintain an even keel, especially during hard times.

That ability to keep a positive outlook when things don’t go as planned can be useful in everyday life, too, such as last December, when Holmes agreed to meet up with a writer and photographer from Yankees Magazine at a coffee shop near his home in Tennessee. The idea was to convene at 8 a.m., then follow Holmes to a nearby training facility to see how he prepares for the upcoming baseball season. But the morning rush hour traffic outside of Nashville has thrown a wrench into those plans, and so he receives a panicky and deeply apologetic phone call letting him know that the magazine crew is running late.

“No worries,” Holmes says. “Take your time.”

Yankees players remain in contact with the team’s strength and conditioning staff throughout the fall and winter, but they also have the freedom to tailor their training regimen to their specific needs. The team may provide a framework for what should happen between the last game of the season and the first day of Spring Training, but players decide where to train, who to work with and when they’d prefer to do it. Catcher Jose Trevino, for example, likes to begin his workouts before sunrise, thus avoiding the morning gridlock in San Antonio and allowing him to get back home to his wife and kids at a decent hour.

Holmes, as we soon learn, likes to slowly ease into his day. He might spend some time reading at the breakfast table and savoring a cup of coffee before making his way over to the gym around 9:30 a.m. or so. Once there, he’ll go through a warmup routine and then a throwing program, followed by a workout. He’ll get a good sweat going, but calling it “intensive” or “rigorous” might be a stretch (no pun intended); “deliberate” or “carefully calculated” would be more accurate.

Every bit the modern athlete, Clay Holmes spends time in the gym poring over data in addition to lifting and throwing. While it might seem simple to destroy hitters’ psyches with an elite pitch that he throws about 70% of the time, the closer is determined to build the necessary strength -- both physical and mental -- to thrive in the pressure cooker that is the ninth inning. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Drafted out of high school by Pittsburgh in the ninth round in 2011, Holmes has been through a lot as a professional pitcher. Coming up through the Minors, he started 114 of the 134 games he pitched, and he experienced quite a bit of success. After just his first season, 2012, he was named a Top 10 prospect in the Pirates organization by Baseball America. In 2016, he made 26 starts at Double-A Altoona and had the best ground-ball ratio of any full-season Minor League pitcher.

But Holmes also dealt with his share of setbacks. A decade ago, Tommy John surgery wiped out his entire 2014 season and the beginning of his 2015. A transition to a bullpen role led to his Major League debut in 2018, but over the course of two seasons, his first 42 big league appearances out of the ’pen resulted in a 5.58 ERA. A broken leg, a global pandemic and a right elbow sprain limited him to just one appearance in 2020, and his 4.93 ERA at the time of the 2021 trade to New York for infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park did not signal that the Yankees’ next great closer had arrived.

Over all that time, though, Holmes learned valuable lessons about what he needs to do in order to be at peak performance when it matters most. As we’ll see at the training facility, he utilizes the reams of data available, pausing his workouts to open up a laptop and consult the spreadsheets showing where he should be in his offseason progress and allowing him to compare it to previous years.

First, though, coffee. We have finally arrived at our meet-up spot, and although Holmes is nowhere to be seen at first, we place our order at the counter. Photographer Ariele Goldman Hecht sends a text message letting Holmes know that we’re sitting at a table in an upstairs nook, a few steps up from the main floor of the coffeehouse.

“Upstairs?” he writes back, confused.

A dreadful feeling washes over us as reality sinks in: This coffee shop is part of a small chain, and we’re at the wrong location.

Mortified, we make a second panicky and deeply apologetic phone call to the Yankees’ closer. Holmes, calm and kind, confirms the correct address and again tells us not to worry, that he’ll wait there until we arrive.

We grab our coffee to go and jump back in the car, antsy and embarrassed, but recognizing a sensation that must be familiar to Boone: The reliever really is unflappable.


If the double-play ball is a pitcher’s best friend, then there’s no better way to ingratiate oneself than with an effectively thrown sinker. Hitters often describe it as similar to hitting a bowling ball: It drops so sharply, so late, that it is nearly impossible to get under the ball and get any kind of lift on it. Instead, weak infield ground balls are the norm.

There are all kinds of statistics and data points that underscore just how dominant Holmes’ high-90s sinker is. His ground-ball rate sits around 65% -- among the highest of any pitcher in the Major Leagues. In 2023, he allowed just two home runs all season -- a grand slam to the first batter he faced at Coors Field on July 16 and a harmless solo shot in a non-save situation at Comerica Park on Aug. 28 -- and his 88.9% save percentage (24-for-27) was second in the AL.

Teammates have called it “the best pitch in baseball.” The “Pitching Ninja,” Rob Friedman, has labeled its frisbee-like path “unfair.”

Holmes pours everything he has into honing and maintaining his bread-and-butter pitch, which he threw about 70% of the time in ’23. Beyond all the physical preparation and mechanics involved, it also requires an uncommon level of mental strength to hitch one’s wagon to a single pitch. Even the great Rivera would lose command of his cutter from time to time, but he always remained confident that it wouldn’t elude him for long.

Like Holmes, Yankees reliever Jonathan Loáisiga relies heavily on his sinker, throwing it about two-thirds of the time. (On Loáisiga’s Nicaragua bull ranch, Rancho la Guadalupana, lives a massive brown beast named El Sinker whose mission in life is to toss rodeo cowboys into the dirt.) Both sinkerballers are also men of strong faith, which can help keep things in perspective on the mound.

“The biggest thing is keeping your emotions in check,” Loáisiga says, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. “It’s what you gain over the years, from personal experience and from talking to guys like Mariano. You understand that you need to execute the same kind of pitch regardless of what the situation may be. At the end of the day, once you release that ball, and it is on its way to the plate, that’s what you control. Anything else after that? You don’t have any control.”

Finally arriving at the correct destination, we are greeted by a smiling Holmes, who is seated, undisturbed, at a table in the middle of a noisy and crowded coffeehouse, peacefully sipping a cortado. Thankfully, and admittedly surprisingly, he’s not annoyed. Holmes understands better than most that there’s no use in getting upset about things that are out of his control. He’s more focused on the things he does have power over -- such as a wicked sinker.

The best high-leverage relievers have to be unflappable in order to survive life without a safety net. In Clay Holmes, Aaron Boone has a closer that he knows can handle the ups and downs of ninth-inning life. Whether coping with a game-changing home run or a forgotten lunch order, nothing seems to phase the Yankees’ sinkerballing magician. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

“For me, it’s honestly pretty simple,” he says. “I throw one really good pitch the majority of the time. So, I can just believe in that pitch and trust that, if I throw it with belief, things are going to fall into place.”

With the haphazard events of the morning behind us, our planned itinerary is now falling back into place. We finish up our caffeinated beverages and make the short drive over to the facility where Holmes trains. It’s a large building with an interesting mix of clients inside. A young kid works with a personal trainer, elderly women take turns using the exercise equipment, and two former Yankees -- local product Sonny Gray and Tennessee transplant Luke Voit -- argue over what region of the country Nashville is in. (Gray, who signed a three-year deal with the Cardinals a few days earlier, quickly snuffs out the St. Louis native’s claim that it’s the Midwest, pointing out that they add sugar to their sweet tea here, so it is obviously the South.)

Holmes is in one of the earlier stages of his offseason regimen. He’ll take 10 to 14 days off after the end of the season before he resumes throwing again, light work just to keep his arm moving. Around that time, he’ll begin a series of four four-week phases that slowly build in intensity, so that by the time he reports to Spring Training, he’ll have done everything he needs in order to be ready to compete against big league hitters. Every day has a specific plan laid out for him, but the goal isn’t just to be ready for Opening Day -- it’s about being ready for the long haul.

“I never want to say I have it figured it out because that’s when you’ll be humbled real quick,” Holmes says when asked if his AL Reliever of the Month Award last September was a direct result of his offseason training. “This past year, physically, even mechanics-wise, I feel like I finished way better than when I started. I felt like I could’ve just kept going at the end of the year. So, I think when you start to realize that and get to those points is when seasons really start to build off of each other. You can take what you accomplish, and you can learn from it, but you can also build, and I think this offseason, that’s kind of been it for me -- building on how I finished from a physical standpoint and where I was at with my delivery and with my sinker. It’s fun to go into the offseason knowing you can really get to work and build on how you ended.”

His warmup complete, Holmes consults his laptop, then grabs his glove and heads through a doorway into an adjacent warehouse-size room with a turf field where he can throw. James Naile, who pitched for the Cardinals in 2022 and ’23, serves as Holmes’ throwing partner, while Gray and his partner begin tossing next to them. Aside from Gray’s steady stream of humorous quips, the only sounds in the cavernous room are the whirr of baseballs flying back and forth and the popping of leather mitts.

For Holmes, building upon last season would mean one thing: a deep October run. Sure, it’s nice to come into 2024 knowing with absolute certainty what the expectations are. “I know who I am, and I know who I can be, and if my role is closing games, I know I’m fully capable,” he says. “There’s no doubts, no questions, and I definitely always look forward to the ninth inning. It’s a fun place to be when you know if you get three outs, the team’s going to win. It’s something I really take a lot of pride in and enjoy competing in those situations.”

But while he has found comfort in the closer’s role, Holmes isn’t out to pad his career stats in 2024 or boost his potential value for when he becomes a free agent after the season -- the goal has always been to win a championship. To do so, as a closer, requires a great deal of self-discovery first.

“You have these dreams, even before you become a professional baseball player, of, just how good you can be and what’s inside of you; what are you capable of?” he says. “I think those questions and that curiosity always push me a little bit. There’s been a lot of work over a lot of years -- it definitely was a slow, long process. But to see all that work come to fruition a little bit is cool, and it’s rewarding to finally get to a point where you’re capable of helping the New York Yankees win and win a championship. For me, this is what I’ve always dreamed of. Not only am I good enough to answer some of my personal questions, but I believe that I’m good enough to help the Yankees win.”


Holmes is not the first Yankees pitcher to utilize the sinker to great effect, and he certainly won’t be the last. When 24-year-old Johnny Kucks struck out Jackie Robinson to complete a 9-0 shutout in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series, it was the sidearming sinkerballer’s only K of the game. The Dodgers pounded 16 ground-ball outs into the Ebbets Field grass that day, including the first eight of the game. Eight years later, in Game 2 of the 1964 World Series, Yankees outfielders barely had to budge, recording just three putouts as 22-year-old rookie Mel Stottlemyre got 18 outs on ground balls in his postseason debut, an 8-3 complete-game victory.

“The kid’s got the best sinker and curve I’ve seen,” Cardinals third baseman and NL MVP Ken Boyer said after going 0-for-4 in the loss. “There isn’t a pitcher in the National League with this kind of stuff.”

From 1943 AL MVP Spud Chandler to 1961 AL Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP Whitey Ford, to more recent standouts such as 2006 Cy Young runner-up Chien-Ming Wang and top-tier reliever Zack Britton, Yankees hurlers have kept hitters at bay and infielders on their toes by harnessing the power of the sinker.

Over a post-workout lunch, Holmes describes his connection to the pitch. “Since I was like 8 or 9, I always held a baseball with a two-seam grip; it’s just how I threw a fastball,” he says. “And the ball always just naturally moves. I can try to do other things -- I can try and throw some four-seams -- but my ball just sinks in a way that’s very unique to me. So, I’ve learned to just try to make that better and really just lean into that.”

Our lengthy conversation veers off in several different directions, as Holmes ponders why more relievers aren’t in Cooperstown -- Rivera became just the seventh pure closer to earn induction when he became the Hall of Fame’s first unanimous inductee in 2019 -- and whether baseball fans fully appreciate what great closers do.

“It may not be the most fun thing to watch because you know that they come in, and it’s just, Here’s three outs, and the game’s over,” he says. “But knowing how hard it is to be really good for a long time -- especially as a relief pitcher, where there’s so much volatility as far as health and consistency -- to be that good and at that kind of performance level, it’s mind-blowing what some of those guys have done.”

Sitting outside on this pleasant December day, we dive into Holmes’ background, how his family’s support has helped him reach the level of success he has found, and how some of the lessons he learned while working on his grandfather’s Alabama farm as a teenager still play into that, when we realize that the food we ordered nearly 40 minutes ago still hasn’t arrived. After inquiring at the counter inside, within moments a panicky and deeply apologetic manager hustles over to say that our order somehow got lost in the shuffle but that our food will be right out.

“No problem,” an unbothered Holmes says, the sun’s warm rays shining down upon him. He is, as always, content to take care of what he can, and to shake off all that he can’t.

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the April 2024 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.