John Holdzkom is making the most of his first opportunity above High-A this season. Much of the success that he has seen this season is due to a lively fastball and some new-found control.
After beginning the season with Amarillo in the Independent Leagues, Holdzkom arrived with a bang with the Pirates organization, signing as a minor league free agent at the end of June. In six innings with Altoona, he allowed just one hit and he struck out ten, while walking two before earning a promotion. In a pair of appearances with Indianapolis, Holdzkom has not seen any drop off. He has worked four innings, striking out three and allowing just one walk and a hit.
“It feels good,” Holdzkom said. “I am not trying to change too much physically or mentally. I am just trying to go out there and hit a spot.”
Hitting those spots have been a main issue for Holdzkom up until this season. In 2013, Holdzkom walked 36 hitters in 43.2 innings with two different Independent League squads. However, strikeouts have never been an issue, as he fanned 52 hitters in that span last season, posting an ERA of 2.89.
However, this was not where the baseball journey started for the 6-foot-7 righty. Holdzkom credits this baseball journey with aiding him in working out some of the control demons that have haunted his entire career.
“I have battled a lot of control and health issues from 2008 to 2012,” Holdzkom said. “There was a lot of time spent in extended and I went and played in Australia the last two winters. That helped me get a lot of repetitions and get more comfortable on the mound. I was playing Indy ball in Texas, South Dakota, and Iowa the last year and a half. The more repetitions that I got, the more comfortable that I got.”
With these repetitions, Holdzkom was able to work on a game plan and getting mechanically sound. Getting the opportunity to work out the kinks and get his long body repeating the delivery is something that he has taken into 2014.
In his last season playing affiliated ball, Holdzkom was with High-A Bakersfield for Cincinnati in 2012. He walked 13 hitters in 8.2 innings. Prior to this, he was a fourth round pick by the Mets in 2004, and struck out 100 hitters in 2008 between Rookie league and Low-A in that organization. However, he also walked 57 hitters in 83.2 innings. The 2008 season also brought an elbow injury and ultimately Tommy John surgery.
“I was out close to 21 months,” Holdzkom said. “I had to deal with feeling so naked on the mound when I got back out there because it is such a long layoff.”
Holdzkom works with a fastball and splitter primarily. His fastball certainly has some life and sits between 93 and 95. It’s a pitch that has previously hit 101 MPH in his career, prior to his injuries. The splitter is between 85 and 86. In addition, he is working on establishing a curveball as a third pitch to throw hitters off the heater more.
“On a good day, my fastball has a little cut to it,” Holdzkom said. “I can just rely on that pretty much. I throw the splitter whenever the catcher calls it. I try not to think too much out there. I have been working on a curveball that I like to mix in here and there. At the higher levels, you really need a third pitch. I have thrown it off and on my whole [career]. It was just inconsistent.”
Holdzkom said that the progress with the curveball has been fine and he is “just waiting for the right time to bust it out.” He admitted that he throws about 90 percent fastballs, so working in a second off pitch would be a nice opportunity to change the look for hitters.
Holdzkom said that his only goal the rest of the season is to be ready to throw strikes when the manager calls his name, regardless of the level he is at.
The fastball that Holdzkom offers certainly catches eye after two appearances in Indianapolis. The recent history, plus the quality stuff quickly brings another Indianapolis reliever to mind in Andy Oliver. Oliver has been working with Pirates’ minor league coaches on ironing out his control, and it has led to a 3.3 BB/9 since the start of June. The same work for Holdzkom could create similar success to Oliver. Despite the lengthy journey, Holdzkom is only 26 and could have some quality seasons left in his arm. If the control issues stay in check, he has the stuff to potentially compete for a bullpen spot one day, especially if the curveball progresses.
Ryan has been following Indianapolis baseball for most of his life, and the Pirates since they became the affiliate in 2005. He began writing for Pirates Prospects in 2013, in a stint that ran through 2016 (with no service time manipulation played in). Ryan rejoined the team in 2022, covering Indianapolis once again. He has covered the Pirates in four different big league stadiums. Ryan was also fortunate enough to cover the 2015 Futures Game in Cincinnati.