You know John Holdzkom. You may think you don’t, but you do.
To an extent.
He’s another feel-good story of climbing from the Independent leagues to the majors, but his ascension happened in a mere matter of months. He has the blazing fastball featured by so many late-inning power arms, but his pitching arsenal features what he calls “The Four.” And like so many, he’s just another guy from the way who’s happy to play baseball for a living.
But he really is just playing the children’s game.
“I try to emulate how I play catch in the outfield and bring that to the mound,” Holdzkom said. “I’ve experimented with a lot of different mental outlooks on pitching…but I’ve realized for me to have the most success I’ve just got to be really calm, soak everything in and take a deep breath.
He learned the process while pitching through Indy ball, spending summers with the Amarillo Sox and Sioux City Explorers. The squads play a 100-game mini-season from May to August, before going off in their own directions after the campaign. In Holdzkom’s words – “summer camp.”
“A couple of my friends, we like to call it like adult summer camp where you’re just leaving for the summer,” Holdzkom said. “You still want to win, you know, but you’re just having fun with your friends. Obviously there’s no big pressure coming from any sort of front office or anything like that, so it’s just a fun, laid-back atmosphere.”
And three days ago, he struck out the eighth in a pennant race against the reigning National League champ St. Louis Cardinals.
“It’s kind of a trip looking back on it and seeing all the places I’ve been and where I’ve played,” Holdzkom said just a few days before his selection by the Pirates. “ I would have never guessed, judging from where my season started, [I’d end up in this position.]”
Par for the course for the flamethrowing righty, who has made a point to avoid analyzing or predicting anything beyond the here and now.
For Holdzkom, that means both on and off the diamond. He said he’s not “tuned into the waiver wire,” even when his name may be circulating around roster rumors. Before he pitches, he’s not reliant on scouting reports of opposing batters, or metrics on rates and outcomes. Holdzkom said he “goes by feel,” both in his simple delivery and easygoing mound presence.
“(My approach) has come from trial and error really. I used to rush, jerk my body around, try to get everything in to it when I realized the smoother and calmer you are, you have better results because you’re not trying to do too much,” Holdzkom said. “(The process is) just trial and error, going out there a bunch of time and figuring out who you are.”
The Cardinals figured out who Holdzkom was the hard way; the Double-A/Triple-A/MLB rookie reared back to touch 98-99 MPH with his fastball, before dropping a devastating offspeed pitch which, according to Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, is currently the only kind of its nature in the major leagues. The Palmball.
Or, “The Four,” as deemed by Holdzkom.
“That was the first offspeed I had ever thrown when I was 13…I just stuck it in my palm” Holdzkom laughed. “I was a big San Diego Padres fan growing up and I thought that’s how Trevor Hoffman threw his, to be honest. I tried to copy him and it’s come a long ways and I feel confident in it.”
The grip, according to Holdzkom, is just as the name entails, with the ball resting in his palm while his thumb works as the only support on the pitch. The right-hander said he aims for the catcher’s mask and just lets the pitch come off his thumb during his release.
As for the best scenario to unleash his “sometimes like a slider, sometimes like a changeup” pitch, he follows his tried-and-true approach.
“Usually [the catcher] has a great feel of when to call it. I think I shook them off once all year,” Holdzkom said. “When he puts the four (fingers) down, I’m like ‘Yeah, it’s time for it.’”
(Tribe photos by Mark Dickhaus/Indianapolis Indians)