Has John Holdzkom Totally Shed His Command Issues?

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.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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R Edwards

He’s an easy guy to root for – to want to see him succeed and take this as far as his ability will take him. IMHO, he and Liz are they keys to the Pirates not just having a good bullpen, but a great one.


Bingo. Having even one of those two for the 7th inning makes this pen just plain nasty. As is the Melancon, Bastardo, Watson trio is super tough. Hughes is very effective with the ground ball, so we have the makings of a good pen as is, add another flame throwing RH and it starts to resemble KC’s automatic pen.


It seems long, lanky pitchers have more “working parts” to their deliveries. Randy Johnson eventually got used to his body and became one of the game’s greats. Hopefully Glasnow is going through a similar transition.

Scott Kliesen

Easy guy to root for. Seems like he’s a lock to make opening day roster, but I like that he has attitude that he hasn’t earned it.

Stay hungry young man.

Mike C.

Any news/info on the two other independent leaguers they signed?

John Dreker

Nevarez pitched in Altoona in August and we covered him here all winter when he played in Venezuela. Peacock was signed in October, so there hasn’t been any chance for something new with him

Both will be in minor league camp and likely they will compete for a bullpen job with Altoona.

Brian Bernard

The cutter this guy possesses makes his potential a better Mark Melancon, and Mark learned from Mo. Mo was successful with one pitch, but it was complemented with exceptional control which John must master if he’s going to take the next step. If he does then it’s hard to say how good he can be.


Nothing but respect for the Mal Fichman’s of America, who just go to work and grind it out. Also to the John Holdzkom’s who never stop dreaming. Hats off to you guys.

Lee Foo Young

I thought the story was that his four seamer was easier to control?


Hey Tim am I the only one that the page keeps hopping an inch up and an inch down every 2 seconds? It’s really cutting down on my use of the site.


I believe it has to do with the changing headlines and the browser.


I have a Macbook Pro running Safari 6.1.6 and I believe the screen is 12 inches. I downloaded Addblocker to my browser and it seems to have eliminated the problem.


That’s the issue on my 10 inch tablet

John Dreker

It has happened to a few others that used an older browser. Internet Explorer I believe. When they updated or checked on another browser, the problem was fixed.

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