The 2014-15 off-season was a different one for John Holdzkom. A year ago, he was “biding his time in Australia”, and then trying to find an independent league team to play for heading into the 2014 season. One year later he finds himself with a Major League team, and a strong chance to crack the Opening Day roster.
Holdzkom was one of the best stories in baseball last year. He was signed by the Pirates during the middle of the season, and went to Altoona for a quick stop. After moving up to Indianapolis and dominating at the level, he made the jump to the majors, where he completed his impressive season by striking out 43.8% of batters in nine innings of work.
“That’s one of those stories that you need to give credit to the people who did the digging,” Clint Hurdle said. “Mal Fichman was a guy that we brought into our scouting department late last year. A veteran guy, been around, and this guy’s willing to grind through those independent leagues to watch pick up games, to watch whatever it is, to just put his eyes on people relentlessly when a lot of other people don’t have that initiative or they’re not looking in those areas.”
Fichman found Holdzkom, who suddenly had shed his previous control problems and was looking like a totally different pitcher. There have been a lot of things that contributed to Holdzkom’s turnaround, although he said the biggest difference was adjusting to his body.
“I think the change was mainly just, I’m so big, it just took a while to get coordinated and know what my body was doing,” Holdzkom said. “That’s all I really can say. There was never an epiphany. I just had a better feel for it. I think if you look at pitchers, once they creep over 6′ 7″, it gets a little tough to repeat when they’re young. I was one of them for sure.”
After Fichman discovered Holdzkom, the Pirates went in-depth. Jim Benedict talked to him. The Pirates talked with people in Australia who saw him pitch in winter ball. They researched how he got to this point, and what areas of his development were improving. And the results were astounding. The Pirates signed two more pitchers out of the independent leagues after adding Holdzkom, inking hard throwers Matt Nevarez and Chris Peacock. Holdzkom’s success was so good that it makes the previously-seen-as-impossible journey to the Major for those two appear to be a strong possibility.
The question now for Holdzkom is whether he can maintain the success he had in 2014. While his MLB time was exciting, and capped off a great story, it was only nine innings. The big question is whether he can maintain his control going forward. So far in his bullpen sessions, he has looked great.
“I’m not trying to change too much, because there’s so much uncertainty in this game,” Holdzkom said. “I’m just trying to keep the same approach I’ve had the last couple of seasons.”
Francisco Cervelli caught Holdzkom yesterday, and praised the natural cut of his fastball after the session.
“He’s good, man. He’s nasty,” Cervelli said.
Holdzkom has been in Bradenton for over a month now, throwing bullpen sessions to minor league catchers before camp opened. Before the sessions began, those catchers would always get a warning about how much his stuff cuts.
The one thing that seems to be in Holdzkom’s favor for winning a spot is that Clint Hurdle seemed to trust him right away, almost immediately promoting him to the seventh inning role, and giving him a save opportunity in his second appearance.
“The one thing he did that was impressive was came in and he threw strikes,” Hurdle said. “He flat out threw strikes. He got after people, he didn’t stay away from bats, and he worked efficiently.”
This year, Holdzkom is looking to incorporate a two-seam fastball more often. He has thrown the pitch before, but is hoping to get more consistent with it, just to add another weapon that will allow him to get out of any tough situations. As for his chances of making the team, you could probably expect that a guy pitching in independent ball wouldn’t be counting on a MLB spot a year later, despite the strong performance.
“I by no means have a guaranteed spot on the roster,” Holdzkom said. “There are a few of us battling for those last spots, and you really don’t think about it, you’ve just got to worry about yourself. If you get too caught up in the competition, it will affect your game.”
Clint Hurdle said that “time will tell” on whether Holdzkom has made a lasting change with his command.
“I believe he’s onto something, whether it’s mechanics, whether it’d be mindset,” Hurdle said. “We talk a lot about mechanics, but everything starts with a thought. And sometimes you just need to give credit to players, they get to a point in their career where ‘I’ve had enough of doing it the way I’ve done it. Maybe there’s an adjustment I can make. Whether it’s mental. Whether it’s physical. Whether it’s mechanical. Whether it’s technical.’ He found that spot, he maintained that spot, and then he said ‘This is working, I’m going to stay with it. I’m going to be relentlessly stubborn with what I’ve got going on right now and see where it takes me.'”
So far it has taken Holdzkom to the Majors. And if it continues, he has the stuff to be one of the nastiest relievers in the game.