Los Angeles Dodgers own, Ben Holmes, is the oldest prospect invited to this year’s Arizona Fall League but that shouldn’t be the story we focus upon.
A 27-year-old lefty starting pitcher who’s journeyman’s path has led him from once being an NCAA All-American, to being released from the Miami Marlins, and consequently out of baseball.
Instead of quitting, Holmes has miraculously landed back on his feet, starting immediately upon signing with the Dodgers and playing for the Quakes in Rancho Cucamonga. Now thriving at the AFL and on the path of becoming one of the biggest surprises in the Dodgers’ organization since fellow journeyman, Rich Hill.
Historic Career with Oregon State
Part of the 2013 College World Series, semifinalist, Oregon State University baseball team, Holmes (known then as, Ben Wetzler) was 10-1 at the end of his first season with OSU. He opened the World Series for the Beavers as the starting pitcher vs. Louisville.
According to John Hunt of The Oregonian, Holmes “struck out six in 6 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits and three earned runs. The game was not close, but it started out 0-0 with plenty of pressure.”
They eventually beat Louisville 11-4 and flew through the initial rounds of the 2013 college world series, only to lose in the semifinal against Mississippi State. Regardless, for Holmes, his performance in the College World Series was the cherry atop an incredible first season, leading into what would be an All-American second season.
During the CWS, the Philadelphia Phillies drafted Holmes in the fifth round. Yet Holmes wanted to go back next year to the College World Series and win the whole thing. As a result, the Phillies reported Holmes to NCAA officials and Holmes, consequently, received a three-week suspension to start his second and final year with the Beavers.
Opinions differed regarding the NCAA’s ruling against Holmes and looked to the Phillies in wonderment, trying to decipher why the MLB organization would report Holmes to the NCAA for wanting to go back to school.
Regardless of his off the field issues, Holmes crafted an even more impressive 2014 campaign and, in bittersweet irony, was named an NCAA All-American student-athlete after his record-setting season.
In his last year at OSU, Holmes led all of NCAA Baseball in ERA to the tune of an astounding 0.78 on the season.
Additionally, of the 13 games Holmes started for the Beavers in 2014, his record of 12-1 with 4 complete games and 2 complete game shutouts remains just as awe-inspiring now today, as it did four years ago.
2014 saw Holmes throw for 104 innings while giving up only 49 hits, nine earned runs, one solitary home run, 31 walks, and strike-out 83 hitters.
More impressive, Holmes’ opponents’ batting average in 2014 was a mere .143 AVG and his WHIP of 0.76. Simply put, Holmes’ collegiate career was dominant. However, not everyone associated with MLB saw Holmes’ long-term potential.
According to Baseball America’s scouting report on Holmes (Wetzler), 2014, “Scouts and Pac-12 coaches, though, report Wetzler’s velocity has been down this year, more in the 86-89 mph range than the 88-91 he showed in the past. He commands and locates his pitches well and has baffled hitters with his plus changeup.
His May arrest for two misdemeanors (criminal mischief and trespassing) left a sour taste in scouts’ mouths, who expect more out of a 22-year-old senior. Wetzler’s combination of diminished velocity, hard-to-gauge signability, and makeup questions, plus his dominance as the Pac-12’s top pitcher, make his draft round difficult to peg.”
As Baseball America predicted, Holmes draft position was indeed, “difficult to peg.” He fell to the 9th round of the 2014 MLB Draft, to the Miami Marlins. A selection Miami was assuredly was thrilled with.
After several years of scuffling within the Marlins organization, Holmes was eventually released in June of this year. As a result, the Dodgers’ acquired him soon thereafter. Upon signing with the LAD affiliate, A-Advanced Quakes, Holmes found himself in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.
Upon his arrival in Rancho, Holmes‘ debut in the Dodgers’ farm system could not have gone any better. He made three starts mixed-in with 3 relief appearances before he was promptly called-up to AA-Tulsa.
After throwing 17 innings, issuing a mere 9 hits, 2 runs (both earned), 1 HR, five walks, and twenty-five strikeouts the Dodgers’ felt that a promotion was inevitable. In total, Holmes’ dealt to the tune of a 1.06 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and left opposing hitters with a batting average of only: .150 AVG.
Facing better competition in the Texas League, Holmes’ momentum didn’t stop there. All six of Holmes’ appearances with AA-Tulsa were starts.
Proving that his current coaching staff made the right decision in keeping him away from the bullpen, Holmes’ awarded Tulsa’s aptitude with 38.1 innings pitched, allowing only 25 hits, 12 runs (all earned), 3 HR’s, 12 walks, and 30 strikeouts. After his first half-season within the Dodgers’ organization, Holmes accrued 2 wins and 2 losses for Tulsa. Additionally, his ERA sparkled, landing at 2.82 in 2018.
His opponents in the Texas League didn’t fare much better than those in the California League. Hitting only .189 against Holmes on the season, his opponents next year may a refresher regarding his repertoire during this offseason.
Holmes’ Pitching Arsenal
Though the 6’ 1” Holmes has four pitches in his arsenal, he typically uses three. An arm-side fade, four-seam fastball with below average velocity (88-91 MPH), a cut fastball (84-86 MPH), and a changeup (82-83 MPH).
Because of his below-average FB velocity, the rest of his pitches consequently have below-average velocity. Therefore, it’s difficult to call his “slider” (a pitch Holmes’ throws between 77-79 MPH) a slider because sliders traditionally sit between 84-89 MPH.
However, Holmes’ pitch doesn’t move like a curveball (a pitch that traditionally mimics the velocity of Holmes’ slider). For lack of a better term, we’ll stick with “slider.”
Semantics aside, it’s safe to call Ben Holmes a lefty finesse pitcher, comparable to Jamie Moyer, using a more cerebral approach on the hill.
In lieu of blowing hitters away with power and torque, Holmes successfully controls his 4-seam due to the timepiece precision of his repeatable delivery.
The nearly flawless efficiency of his mechanics allows Holmes to naturally disguise his pitches, a virtue that allows Holmes the ability to throw any pitch at any time. Holmes’ changeup is undeniably his best pitch and due to the deception built into his delivery, Holmes can throw his best pitch, seemingly at-will.
All of these qualities create what the Dodgers are now seeing in Holmes’ overall performance; an exquisitely crafted machine that uses guile and intelligence over pure stuff and velocity. A giant test in the form of the Arizona Fall League had awaited Holmes after the 2018 season concluded. The key word is “had.”
Arizona Fall League Performance
For the Glendale Desert Dogs, the start to this season’s edition of the Arizona Fall League couldn’t have gone much worse.
They played in eight games before they eventually won their first. Holmes’ second start of the short-season brought the Desert Dogs’ their second win of the short-season (October 22nd).
Their second win also came against the best team in the AFL, the Peoria Javelinas. Currently, atop the standings with a 13-6 record, the Javelinas lineup is loaded.
Keston Hiura is the Milwaukee Brewers #1 prospect. He headlines the Javelinas and happened to hit second in the order on the 22nd. Widely considered to be the “best natural hitter” amongst all National League prospects and (if not for wunderkind, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) quite possibly all of baseball, Hiura is the real deal.
However, Hiura fell victim to Holmes’ combination of 4-seam fastball location and devastating change not once, but twice on that day.
Previously released only a few short months ago by the Miami Marlins, Ben Holmes, in his second start of the AFL struck out one of the best hitting prospects in baseball, twice.
On the short-season thus far, Holmes’ ranks 6th in strikeouts and 5th in walks issued across the entire AFL. His record is 1-1 (with his one win coming against the loaded Javelinas) through 14.2 innings pitched.
In four starts, Holmes has managed to strike out 17 batters, giving up only 15 hits, 5 walks, 5 earned runs, and his opponents, in the über-talented AFL, are hitting .273 against him.
Holmes is the oldest player in this year’s AFL. Yet, his age shouldn’t be viewed as a disadvantage. In contrast, I argue that, as a direct consequence of his age, he’s the most experienced, battle-tested, headstrong, and therefore, a dedicated prospect in this year’s AFL class.
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How would most people react to facing accusations from the team that originally drafted them, before ever setting foot on an MLB field and after receiving sanctions from the NCAA because they wanted to stay in school?
I can’t begin to imagine how most people would react. Yet Ben Holmes reacted in the most admirable way imaginable. He took the sanctions on the chin, served the three weeks of the suspension, learned from it, and went on to become an NCAA All-American starting pitcher.
Instead of receiving praise after overcoming such adversity from Major League Baseball, Holmes was met with judgment and hypocrisy after he was drafted in the ninth round following his last year of eligibility at OSU.
He happened to accumulate a couple of misdemeanors in college, but what college student hasn’t got into trouble during college?
With what would typically represent the “final straw,” he was released from the Marlins just a couple of months ago. And instead of giving up completely, he waited for a call from another MLB team and stayed ready.
After signing with Dodgers, instead of focusing upon the negative and feeling dejected because of the Marlins, he understood the second-chance the Dodgers had given him. And right now he’s striking out MLB’s biggest and brightest hitters in arguably the most important league for prospects.
Two separate entities will benefit from one entity’s determination: the Los Angeles Dodgers and Ben Holmes. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Holmes on the diamond next season sometime at Dodger Stadium.