Return of the Major League Palmball

John Holdzkom made his major league debut a little over a week ago, in relief for the Pirates in a losing effort against the Cardinals. As he faced his first batter — a showdown he’ll either remember forever or forget in an instant — the St. Louis broadcast got to talking. Said Rick Horton:

I asked our friends in the broadcast team for the Pirates what they could tell me about Holdzkom, and their answer was, we’ve never heard of him. […] We understand he has a palmball.

That’s two things. That’s a quote that says a little about John Holdzkom. It’s also a quote that says everything about John Holdzkom. Holdzkom has followed an impossible path, and now he stands as the only known pitcher throwing a palmball in the bigs.

By now, the story’s well known in Pittsburgh. If you’re unfamiliar, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper has you covered, with the complete history of Holdzkom’s improbable tale. The shortest version is this: This season began with Holdzkom asking the manager of an independent team in Amarillo for a job. In the final hours of August 31, the Pirates added Holdzkom to their 40-man roster to make sure he’d be postseason-eligible. In Holdzkom’s first-ever major league outing, he struck out the side. The next time out, he picked up a save.

Of course, Holdzkom’s story extends back beyond 2014. He was drafted by the Mariners in 2005, and then he was drafted by the Mets in the fourth round in 2006. He was known to have a hell of an arm, and he was known for his selective maturity, which he’d rarely select. In the minors, Holdzkom was wild, and within a few years he blew out his elbow. His Baseball-Reference page shows an empty 2011. A little later on he called into the Chelsea Peretti podcast and talked about himself.

John: I’ve already blown a small fortune.
Chelsea: You did?
John: Yeah.
Chelsea: Ach, why? What was the fortune? How much is a small fortune, $10 grand?
John: No, when I was 18, the New York Mets gave me $210,000.
Chelsea: Whoa, why?
John: Because they thought I was a good baseball player.
Chelsea: Oh my god. What happened?
John: Just buying sushi every night. Thinkin I’m the man. Bought a new car. It’ll catch up to ya.

There’s more in there, but I don’t actually want to dwell too much on where Holdzkom has come from. See, he’s always had heat, and he started throwing a palmball at 13 as a nod to Trevor Hoffman. What Holdzkom was missing was any semblance of control, and it seems he’s made the necessary tweak in 2014. It’s not a dramatic one. Used to be, Holdzkom held his fastball like this:

(| |)

These days, Holdzkom holds his fastball like this:

( || )

And that’s it. That’s the whole change. Granted, Holdzkom is a lot better off for having grown as a person, but all it took to bring him back to affiliated baseball was bringing his fingers closer together. Suddenly, Holdzkom had a better idea of where the baseball would go, and pitchers with two pitches and decent location are legitimate big-league pitchers. And so Holdzkom looks like a legitimate big-league pitcher, with a pitch that no one else has.

Unofficially, I suppose. Clint Hurdle thinks there’s only the one. If you search Google News for the term “palmball,” you get a bunch of Holdzkom results, but if you eliminate his name, this is all that you’re left with:

“The guy’s a pitcher, there’s no doubt about that,” Manager Jake Mauer said Monday night, after Chih-Wei Hu’s latest strong start lifted the Kernels to a 4-2 win over Quad Cities at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
[…]
“Tonight, the breaking ball was very nice,” said Hu, whose English skills are still evolving but definitely improving. “The palmball, very nice. The changeup, very nice. The slider, pretty nice.”

Holdzkom throws a pitch plenty of people used to throw. But pitching is trendy, and there developed a fear that the palmball, like the splitter, is hard on the elbow. So pitchers moved toward other sorts of changeups, and more recently we’ve seen something of a rise of the cutter. Holdzkom’s palmball doesn’t move in a unique way, across the spectrum of all pitch types, but he throws a pitch in a way other people don’t, and that’s among the things that makes him so remarkable.

So let’s look at some of those palmballs. Holdzkom’s only thrown a few, but one in particular raised some eyebrows, closing out his first big-league plate appearance:

Palm1

Holdzkom struck out the batter. The batter reached base, because the ball got by one of the game’s better blockers. Here’s an image of Holdzkom’s grip:

palmball

Here he is just prior to release:

palmball2

And here’s the slow-motion replay:

PalmSlow

From the Pirates broadcast:

He kinda spins it. It kinda has a little bit of a slider spin. Pretty good movement, broke down and away from the righty.

And that’s one of the things about Holdzkom’s pitch. It’s thought of as a sort of changeup, but according to PITCHf/x, it’s moved more like a slider. Holdzkom has said it’s sometimes like a slider, but then there’s different arm action and the palmball is slower than a slider would be. So it functions as some kind of pitch blend, and it’s Holdzkom’s main secondary pitch. He doesn’t actually throw that many secondary pitches, since his fastball — which is a cutter — can get into the high-90s.

Some more off-speed pitches:

Palm2

Palm3

Palm4

Holdzkom said he threw three palmballs in the game. It seems like he threw four, so either he didn’t remember exactly, or there was something else mixed in there. Whatever the case, it’s obviously too early to say a lot about the pitch’s effectiveness, but it could’ve had a much more discouraging start. So far, so good.

So where we are now is that Holdzkom is a big-leaguer, and he’s throwing the big leagues’ only version of something. For that reason and for others, we should hope for his success. Not long ago, Robert Coello was throwing a true, old-school forkball. Then he got hurt, and this year he’s bounced around Triple-A. It would be super if Holdzkom were here to stay, and there are reasons to believe he just might be.

Across three professional levels this year, Holdzkom has thrown pitches for strikes 65% of the time. That’s a little bit better than average, and that’s from a guy who’s only recently learned to better harness his stuff. He’s also allowed a contact rate of 69%, despite sometimes throwing as much as 95% fastballs. His cutter moves around, sometimes unpredictably, which means Holdzkom can be trouble to both sides:

Fast1

Russell Martin has talked about how hard Holdzkom is to catch, and that’s from a guy who knows what’s coming, and roughly where it’s supposed to go:

Handcuffed

Holdzkom has good velocity and good movement, and if he is indeed going to be something like 90% to 95% fastballs, he wouldn’t be without peers:

Being a decent relief pitcher isn’t easy, but if you have stuff, you don’t have to clear a very high threshold. We can see Holdzkom has a sharp cutter that he’s better able to throw in the zone. And he has a palmball he’s thrown for 13 years, so he might understand that pitch the best. It’s not a pitch people are seeing from anyone else, and it’s not a pitch hitters are going to be prepared for if Holdzkom ends up as fastball-heavy as he says.

I don’t know the future. For proof, just go back to what I said about the trade deadline. Maybe it’ll turn out Holdzkom still doesn’t throw enough strikes. Maybe he’ll get hurt and disappear. But at least for now, it would appears John Holdzkom is the only guy in the major leagues throwing a palmball. He’s already used it to get a couple strikeouts. That’s neat. And if Holdzkom is as improved as his story suggests, for all I know he could be neat for another decade and a half. John Holdzkom throws a palmball because of Trevor Hoffman. Maybe down the road, there’ll be players throwing palmballs because of John Holdzkom.

We hoped you liked reading Return of the Major League Palmball by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Lonely Guy
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Lonely Guy

Love the idea.