Yankees’ Clay Holmes living ‘dream come true,’ ready to excel again in 2022

Slocomb is a 10-square-mile town in Southeastern Alabama. Its total population of 2,000 wouldn’t fill a minor-league ballpark.

But it’s known for growing some of the best tomatoes in the US and even calls itself “Home of the Tomato.”

If Clay Holmes keeps this up, Slocomb will also be known as the hometown of one of the better relievers in Major League Baseball.

Holmes was a revelation for the Yankees after a midseason trade from the Pirates last year. The 28-year-old right-hander hopes to be even better in 2022.

“My body feels great,” Holmes said in an interview with NJ Advance Media on Friday. “I followed the same path this offseason as I went through last year and I feel like I’m in a great spot again this spring and I’m ready for whatever comes.”

Growing up, Holmes was a Braves fan, but he admired the Yankees and even had posters celebrating their World Series wins on his bedroom walls.

Now, Holmes figures to play a big role yet again in manager Aaron Boone’s bullpen.

“It’s a little surreal,” he said. “It’s something that I can say I dreamed of and, I guess it’s cliche to say, but it’s a dream come true.”

On July 26, the Yankees — looking to shore up their bullpen before the trade deadline – sent minor-league infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park to Pittsburgh in exchange for Holmes, who had just a 4.93 ERA over 44 appearances. The Yankees swore they saw tools in Holmes that they believed would lead to greater success and their hands. They were right.

Holmes was one of the most impressive relievers in the game for the rest of the season. In 25 appearances, he posted a 1.61 ERA. He cut his walks substantially, giving up just four free passes in 28 innings with the Yankees after surrendering 25 in 42 frames with the Pirates. And he ratcheted up the strikeouts, posting 10.9 punchouts per nine innings compared to 9.4 with Pittsburgh.

Over the span, Holmes’ 0.9 WAR was the 10th best among relievers across baseball, according to Fangraphs. His 61.5% ground ball rate was 12th in the majors among relievers.

Holmes credited his work with pitching coach Matt Blake and the pitching analysts for help with his improvement. Former Pirates teammate Jameson Taillon’s friendship was huge help getting him acclimated to a new clubhouse and to New York City. Sometimes, Taillon and Holmes would take the subway together to Yankee Stadium.

“I just really found the consistency that I was looking for,” Holmes said.

How it happened made plenty of sense. Holmes leaned out his arsenal, almost completely cutting out his curveball to focus on his best pitch, a sinker that averaged 96 mph, and his slider. He found more consistency with his release point, too, he said.

It also helped that Holmes was finally healthy after a tough 2020, in which he dealt with a right foot fracture and a right forearm strain. Holmes spent 12 days on the COVID-19 injury list in August.

A righty killer, Holmes said he wants to become a better threat against lefties in 2022. He projects to work into the Yankees’ late-inning mix behind closer Aroldis Chapman.

“I’ve found some success with simplifying things and going heavy sinker and mixing in some sliders,” he said. “But at the same time, I want to have more success against lefties given the opportunities. Maybe adding a couple of pitches here and there that I’ve been tinkering with. I look forward to throwing them to some hitters and seeing how those are going to play out.”

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Brendan Kuty may be reached at bkuty@njadvancemedia.com.

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