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Seeing strides, Holmes aims for consistency

@adamdberry
February 22, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Clay Holmes' Spring Training debut couldn’t have gone much better. Facing the top of the Twins’ lineup in the fifth inning of Saturday's 2-1 loss at LECOM Park, Holmes quickly and efficiently induced three weakly hit groundouts.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Clay Holmes' Spring Training debut couldn’t have gone much better. Facing the top of the Twins’ lineup in the fifth inning of Saturday's 2-1 loss at LECOM Park, Holmes quickly and efficiently induced three weakly hit groundouts.

He fired two first-pitch curveballs for strikes. His fastball ran up to 96 mph, according to the stadium radar gun. Six of his seven pitches were strikes. That efficiency combined with his stuff, manager Derek Shelton said, was “very good to see.”

“When Clay’s like that, it’s really hard to hit him,” catcher Jacob Stallings said. “He’s got the stuff. He’s nasty.”

It was an encouraging start to a pivotal spring for Holmes, who will turn 27 one day after Opening Day. He is one of four right-handed relievers on the Pirates’ 40-man roster who is out of Minor League options, so he could be lost on waivers if he can’t claim a spot in the Opening Day bullpen. But he’s worried less about what could happen and focused more on what he can be.

“When I’m at my best, I’m a really good pitcher. I believe that,” Holmes said. “Just focusing on some things, what it’s going to take for me to be at my best. I hope things work out and I’m helping Pittsburgh win games.”

Holmes has shown those flashes before. There was a stretch last season, from June 8-July 2, when the 6-foot-5 right-hander seemed to be finding his footing as a reliever. But consistency has eluded Holmes -- from outing to outing, inning to inning, pitch to pitch -- throughout his brief Major League career.

In two of his first three starts in 2018, Holmes was knocked out in the third inning. In between those outings, he pitched six dominant innings against the Brewers. He followed a strong nine-game stretch last summer (2.61 ERA, 13 strikeouts, 10 baserunners allowed in 10 1/3 innings) by giving up 11 runs in his next six innings. He seemingly improved his command after that, only to walk 17 batters and hit four more in his final 18 1/3 innings last season.

So it’s no surprise that Holmes entered this spring searching for stability. With a more repeatable delivery and a steady release point, perhaps more consistent results will follow.

“The biggest thing is how can we put the physical delivery [in place] to get consistency out of the ball,” bullpen coach Justin Meccage said. “Something is causing that inconsistency, usually in the delivery. Sometimes, it’s just that, when it’s a little off. But when it’s a big inconsistency, you want to look at some delivery and timing.”

Holmes has huddled with Meccage and pitching coach Oscar Marin, and he did some independent research of his own as well. Holmes began working last year with a company called F5 Sports, which created “pitchLogic” technology that tracks and provides all kinds of data -- spin rate, spin axis, arm slot and so on -- from within an actual baseball.

That information allowed Holmes to analyze and understand the characteristics of his sinker when it’s working right, which should help him be less erratic. According to Statcast, Holmes’ sinker had more vertical movement than that of all but four pitchers in the Majors last season. Newcomer Luke Maile was immediately impressed after catching one of Holmes’ early bullpen sessions, saying “the bottom literally drops out of” Holmes’ sinker due to the pitch’s late break.

“I did some digging, because I know when my sinker is on, that’s the dominant pitcher that I can be,” Holmes said. “The first priority was finding that sinker command and the things I do when it’s at its best, finding a couple body positions I want to nail in my delivery and a couple things about the actual pitch -- the spin axis and things to monitor -- so it’s at my best more often. [It's] tangible things I can put my hands on to kind of keep me within the rails.”

He was firmly within the rails in his Spring Training debut. There’s still a long way to go before he can earn a spot and, more importantly, pitch well enough to keep that job. But the potential is there, and perhaps he’s made real progress toward unlocking it.

“He’s got an elite sinker, but it doesn’t get in the zone as much as we would like. That’s gotten him in trouble,” Meccage said. “His other pitches are all good -- his curveball is an elite pitch when he’s able to throw it in the zone and use it for chase. Same thing with the slider. But now, how can we get the sinker -- another elite pitch -- in the zone? Then you’ve got a complete package.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.