The New York Yankees discovered their new closer the hard way after a blown save against the Cleveland Guardians on Monday night. Manager Aaron Boone made a disastrous decision by using Clay Holmes, who had not pitched in four days and had struggled at the beginning of the 2023 season.
In 2022, Holmes emerged as one of the best bullpen arms on the team and won the closer role outright, rendering Aroldis Chapman practically irrelevant.
The Yankees have to go in a different direction at closer:
Over 9.2 innings this year, Holmes has posted a 3.72 ERA with 11.17 strikeouts per nine innings and a 62.5% left-on-base rate. His ground ball rate has dropped to 53.8% from 75.8% last year.
Interestingly, he is throwing his sinker slightly less often at 68.3%, a 12% decrease. While hitters batted .200 against his sinker in 2022, they are hitting .286 this year with a .393 slugging percentage, including three extra-base hits across 28 at-bats.
Regrettably, although Holmes possesses elite skills, his location has been erratic and inconsistent. While he accurately hit the corners during a dominant stretch last year, he has recently been more prone to losing control, forcing the Yankees to change their primary closer.
On Tuesday night, Boone made a significantly better decision by bringing in Michael King, who has made a strong comeback after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Michael King is the answer:
King has a 1.56 ERA for the season over 17.1 innings, striking out 10.38 batters per nine innings and maintaining a career-low 2.08 BB/9 rate. His 85.7% left-on-base rate and 51.1% ground ball rate are both career highs. Although his velocity is still recovering, averaging 94.5 mph on his fastball, his location has been outstanding, and his breaking pitches have been exceptional.
Examining his advanced metrics, King has increased his 4-seam fastball usage, reducing his sweeper and sinker numbers. Nevertheless, his sinker has generated a 42.1% put-away rate, and his sweeper has a 44% whiff rate, both higher figures than in 2022. In fact, he has decreased his sweeper usage by 6% this year, relying more heavily on his fastballs. While he is not achieving the same bite on his sweeper as he did in 2022, his pitch selection and timing have been effective.
On Tuesday night against Cleveland, King secured his second save of the season, striking out three batters over 1.2 innings and walking one. He was electric in closing the game, helping the Yankees earn their first victory in five games. A strong case can be made for King to be heavily utilized as the team’s primary closer going forward unless Boone has confidence in Ron Marinaccio or Wandy Peralta.
Both Marinaccio and Peralta are more than capable of handling the closer role, but for now, Holmes cannot be relied upon to finish games in high-pressure situations.