The Pittsburgh Pirates have plenty of top pitching prospects in their system. Gerrit Cole made the jump to the majors in 2013, and was looking like an ace by the end of the season. Jameson Taillon is expected to make that same jump in 2014. Tyler Glasnow broke onto the scene as a potential top of the rotation guy in 2013, and could be up as early as mid-2015, depending on how well he does with his command in the upper levels.
Beyond the top of the rotation possibilities, the Pirates also have talented guys who could fill middle of the rotation roles. The most notable here is Nick Kingham, who had a bit of a breakout season in 2013, combining for a 2.89 ERA in 143.1 innings between Bradenton and Altoona, with a 9.0 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9 ratio. Kingham is almost universally viewed as a guy who could be a safe bet to be a strong middle of the rotation starter, with the frame to pitch 200 innings per year.
The 2014 season might see Clay Holmes joining Kingham as another strong future middle of the rotation guy capable of throwing 200 innings a year. In fact, Holmes may already be following Kingham’s path.
Kingham didn’t have the most eye-popping numbers in his time with West Virginia in 2012. He had a 4.39 ERA in 127 innings, with an 8.1 K/9 and a 2.6 BB/9 ratio. But if you break down the season, you’ll see that Kingham had a slow start in West Virginia, then quietly finished with some dominant numbers. He had a 5.89 ERA in 81 innings heading into the second week of July, along with an 8.1 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, and 1.6 HR/9. In his final nine starts he combined for a 1.66 ERA in 48.2 innings, with an 8.1 K/9, a 1.7 BB/9, and an 0.2 HR/9. Kingham carried the success over to his 2013 season, and that’s when people started to pay attention.
Holmes had a very similar season in his run through West Virginia. On the season he had a 4.08 ERA in 119 innings, with a 6.8 K/9 and a 5.2 BB/9 ratio. He had a 5.05 ERA in 67.2 innings in his first 15 starts, with a 5.9 K/9 and a 6.3 BB/9 ratio. But in his final 11 starts he had a 2.72 ERA in 53 innings, with a 7.8 K/9 and a 3.7 BB/9 ratio. Holmes could still use a reduction in his control numbers, but he really turned things around at the end of the year after getting off to a horrible start with his control.
“I just started focusing on what my delivery should look like, what my thought process should be,” Holmes said. “When all of that stuff started falling in place, and how I was doing it became the main thing, I really started to make a lot of progress.”
The Pirates have seen several pitchers take the same approach as Kingham and Holmes. They have a rough first half of the season, then make some major progression by the end of the year. Holmes explained how struggling actually helps a player to realize what the team expects from him in the future.
“Once you start failing a little bit, they’re able to really to help you, and really start to put in place what they envision for you as far as from a physical standpoint,” Holmes said. “You get to where you can control your body a little more. You’re a little older. Add a little more feel for your body so it can kind of give you a little more.”
Our own John Dreker saw Holmes several times throughout the year, and noticed the transition in his stuff from the beginning to the end of the season:
John Dreker: When I first saw Clay Holmes pitch in 2013, there were some obvious impressive things about him, but just as obvious were the things he had to work on. Holmes has the size to be a workhorse starter and he was hitting 95 MPH. The problems were his control and the fact he didn’t hold his velocity late. He was aiming his pitches, something a scout pointed out, and a possible reason his velocity dropped.
His second start I saw was better in that regard, but the results weren’t there. In the third outing, Holmes put everything together, holding his velocity deep in the game, along with a sharp 78-80 MPH curve and a change-up with good separation from his fastball. He was throwing all three pitches for strikes and dominated the Lakewood BlueClaws, throwing six shutout innings and for the first time all season, he didn’t issue a walk and he kept the ball on the ground.
It was the type of progress you like to see from a young kid in his first full season. He had problems, made changes and saw improvements. What was possibly more impressive is that he did it late in the season, throwing a season-high 6.1 innings in the start. While some players were seeing their starts pushed back due to innings, he had his best outing of the year.
Holmes said that his changeup saw the biggest improvements this past season. He got to the point where he was comfortable throwing it in all counts, and to right-handers or left-handers, which helped him use the pitch as a backup when his fastball was having problems.
“It was one of those pitches this year, at times when my fastball command wasn’t there, it was my pitch that I had to go to,” Holmes said. “I’m getting very comfortable with it, because the Pirates stress it.”
Holmes is still throwing just the three pitches, although he might add a two-seam fastball this year. That’s a standard progression for pitchers in the Pirates’ system. The Pirates have their young pitchers focusing on commanding their four seam fastball, improving one breaking pitch, and developing a changeup. Once they reach High-A, they start throwing a two-seam fastball, and once they reach Double-A, they start to lean on the pitch more.
He saw some big improvements in 2013, and the 2014 season could see a Nick Kingham style breakout. They’re two different pitchers, and the control problems from Holmes make him a little bit more of a risk than Kingham. However, he has the same upside as Kingham, started to see his control improve in 2013, saw his velocity take a jump, saw his changeup improve, and still has an above average curveball. Everything is trending in the right direction for Holmes, and if those trends continue, he could follow Kingham’s path with success in Bradenton, ending up in Altoona by the end of the 2014 season.