Yankees’ closer has quietly been a huge part of the team’s hot start

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees
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The New York Yankees are 13-6, the best record in all of baseball, but one of the biggest reasons they’ve played so well has to do with how well they’ve held leads late in games. Outside of their loss to the Cleveland Guardians on Sunday, the Yankees have been able to close games out reliably, and the biggest reason for that has been Clay Holmes. Coming off of a season where he had his ups and downs, the right-hander is having a strong start to his season. With seven saves, Holmes has the American League lead in that category, anchoring this bullpen in the ninth inning.

Despite the criticisms he’s faced throughout his tenure as the closer for the Yankees, he’s been nails to start the season, and the team can give a good portion of the credit to the 30-year-old relief ace for their hot start.

Clay Holmes Has Been Automatic For the Yankees

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays
Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the season, there were concerns with Clay Holmes after some rocky outings in Houston where it took some strong defensive plays from the team to seal the deal. Questions about whether the Yankees needed a new closer rose to the surface, but the right-hander has done nothing but shove this season. His only blown save of the season comes off of a botched play by Anthony Volpe in Arizona, as he made a throwing error and gift-wrapped the Diamondbacks a chance to tie the game.

The ability to keep the ball on the ground has always been there for Clay Holmes, with an elite 73.3% groundball rate and an increase in breaking ball usage. His firmer “gyro” slider has a .118 wOBA and 50% Whiff Rate in the early going, as Holmes is using the pitch about 7% more than he did last season as a way to create a different look for both lefties and righties. The Sweeper is also up in usage, and it’s as nasty as it’s ever been, generating an 80% Whiff Rate and using it exclusively against right-handed batters.

MLB: New York Yankees at Arizona Diamondbacks
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Clay Holmes isn’t attacking the zone more often, but the walk rate has dropped to 2.6%, something that’s allowed him to avoid those self-imposed blow-ups that we saw in the cold and wispy weather last year. Reliability and consistency are the two things you want from your closer, and while he’s eventually going to blow a lead or run into a rough patch as all closers do, his success oftentimes gets overlooked. Since joining the Yankees, he has truly been one of the very best relievers in all of baseball:

There’s no way to argue that Clay Holmes has not given the Yankees top-10 production out of the bullpen, and the strong start to the season is a reflection of how good he is. There are certainly maddening stretches, but when you’re always pitching in high-leverage situations, you’re bound to fail in those spots as well. The numbers speak for themselves, with the one I wanted to highlight the most being Win Probability Added, which factors in the leverage of the situation you’re performing in.

Ranking in the top 10 in that metric means that Clay Holmes has positively impacted the Yankees’ chances at winning a lot, and that’s exactly what you want from your closer. Shutting the door late in games to put a team away is an important part of winning games, and when the Yankees handed Holmes a two-run lead in the ninth yesterday, he did it without breaking much of a sweat. His groundball-first approach means he excels at preventing the long ball, and that’s evidenced by a minuscule 0.33 HR/9 with the Bronx Bombers.

He’s not perfect, but nobody was, is, or ever will be. Mariano Rivera spoiled us by being the single greatest closer to ever walk the face of the earth, and while Clay Holmes cannot compare to that, he’s still very good and very important to this team.

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