There's a really good piece in The Athletic (subscription required) about New York Mets relief pitchers Colin Holderman and Stephen Nogosek using the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown to reinvent themselves as pitchers. It's paying off for the Mets this year, as both young men have contributed to the Mets bullpen this season.
Although both suffered hiccups in the Mets' awful series against the Padres, Holderman and Nogosek still possess decent stat lines. In 10 games, Holderman has a 3.18 ERA, 11.1 IP, 10 H, 14 K, 4 BB, and 0 HR. Nogosek has a 3.55 ERA in 7 games, 12.2 IP, 10 H, 8 K, 2 BB, and 2 HR. Developing talented arms into MLB relievers is something that I hope to see a lot more of from the Mets going forward. As I've discussed multiple times, it's an area where they didn't do very well under the previous owners.
Interestingly, neither pitcher was rated high enough to earn some hands-on work at the Mets' alternate site in Brooklyn during the pandemic season of 2020. The progress they made was in remote work with the Mets development staff.
Colin Holderman was a 9th-round pick by the Mets in 2016. Holderman had pitched a season for the Southern Illinois Salukis in 2015, appearing in 12 games, including 4 starts. He wasn't particularly effective there, with a 7.68 ERA in 38.2 IP. Holderman allowed 39 H, 21 BB, 16 K, and 3 HR. The Mets clearly weren't scouting the stat line when they drafted him.
Holderman wasn't a star in the Mets system. It didn't help that he missed the 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. In 2019, Holderman pitched at 3 levels of A ball in St. Lucie, Columbia, and Brooklyn, making 15 starts and 1 relief appearance. He wasn't terrible, but he walked 29 batters in 66.1 IP, striking out 49. At 24 years old in 2020, Holderman looked more like an organizational pitcher than a future major leaguer.
Steven Nogosek was also a 2016 draft pick, a 6th-round pick of the Red Sox. He came to the Mets with Gerson Bautista and Jamie Callahan in return for reliever Addison Reed in July 2017. Bautista was subsequently included in the Robinson Canó deal with the Mariners, while Callahan was released by the Mets in 2018. Nogosek pitched well in AA and AAA for the Mets in 2019, even earning 7 appearances with the Mets that season. Still, as with Holderman, he wasn't regarded highly enough to get time at the alternate site in 2020.
Holderman credits a video chat conversation with Ricky Meinhold, who was the Mets minor league pitching coordinator in 2020, with turning things around for him:
"You throw like an idiot," is Holderman’s recollection of Meinhold's blunt advice. "You don't use your legs at all."
"Basically, he didn’t maximize the efficiency in how his body moved and how that relates to force and power and the timing that happens through ball release," Meinhold said more politely this week, via phone from South Korea where he works for the KBO's Lotte Giants. "So he struggled maintaining his velocity and his stuff, and he didn' really throw quality strikes. And because of the inconsistency of his delivery, he was always hurt."
Meinhold told Holderman to think of his pitching delivery more like a golf swing, where the legs had to become actively involved. The change was abrupt.
"The next time I was on the mound, it was way better. I was going from 94 to 98 in a couple of days," Holderman said. "It was way easier on my arm. I wasn't as sore the next day, and I was throwing harder."
When the minors resumed operations in 2021, Colin Holderman pitched effectively in 15 appearances in A and AA, earning a spot in the Arizona Fall League. Holderman impressed there and in the brief spring camp this year. He eventually made it to the Mets bullpen, even though he wasn't on the 40-man to start the year. I have read that the Mets were fortunate that there was no Rule 5 draft this year, as Holderman would have been a likely target.
Stephen Nogosek's strides forward involved changes to his pitching mix rather than the sort of mechanical changes Holderman made:
"I'm not afraid to look myself in the mirror and say, 'You aren't good enough. Change and get after it,'" Nogosek said. "If you want to pitch against the best in the world, you've got to change stuff. I wasn’t scared of it, I wasn't intimidated by it. I took it by the horns."
Nogosek worked primarily with D.J. Carrasco, then a pitching coach in the organization. He looked at his arsenal and wondered: If he could design it all from the bottom up, what kind of pitcher would he be?
Carrasco thought Nogosek’s four-seam fastball was good enough to play at the major-league level — but not if he threw it 60-plus percent of the time...
..Nogosek's key additions were a refined changeup and a cutter. The cutter, built as a variation to his slider, allows him to get back into counts and work for weak contact as opposed to swings-and-misses.
"It makes everything better," Nogosek said of the cutter, which he's throwing about 30 percent of the time in the majors this season. "I can throw it for a strike, I can throw it off the plate, I can shape it to get swing-and-miss, I can shape it to get early contact."
It took another minor league season in 2021 for Nogosek to refine his new mix, but he has been more effective this season. I have to admit that I had personally written Nogosek off as another organizational arm destined to ride the shuttle back and forth until he no longer had options, but reading Britton's piece in The Athletic, along with Nogosek's improved performance with the Mets, gives me hope that he can contribute to the Mets as a middle reliever.
Both Nogosek and Holderman are developmental wins for the Mets system. The Mets have some guys who can throw hard in their system. Michel Otañez and Bryce Montes de Oca, both recently promoted to AAA Syracuse, are just a couple of big arms who could potentially wind up in an MLB bullpen someday soon. Of course, the Mets have always had big arms in their system. However, turning them into effective major league relievers didn't always work out.
In reading Tim Britton's excellent piece on Holderman and Nogosek, I was impressed by the work that Mets coaches were able to do with them. Still, it begged the question, why did it take until the weird 2020 pandemic season for these young pitchers to be encouraged to make necessary changes? Nogosek had pitched in the Mets system from 2017 through 2019. You would have thought someone would have suggested those changes to his repertoire earlier.
Colin Holderman had 2016 and 2017 in the Mets' system before missing 2018, then he came back to throw 66 innings in the 2019 season. I would guess that Colin's tendency not to use his legs in his delivery goes back to those years, too.
The Mets have made significant changes in many areas since Steve Cohen bought the franchise. While I understand that an organization needs to be cautious in making substantial changes in a pitcher, I hope they will be more proactive in refining their prospects going forward.
I don't underestimate the challenge of helping a kid with a live arm harness that arsenal as an effective MLB reliever. It's crucial for even relatively low-leverage middle relievers to throw strikes. Walks often lead to runs for your opponents. However, it's not just about throwing strikes. They must be quality pitches, or a reliever can get whiplash watching his offerings disappear over the fence.
It's interesting that neither Meinhold, who helped Holderman, nor Carrasco, who worked with Nogosek, are still with the Mets. They've both been part of the churn as the Mets work to build a player development system maximized to feed the big league club. Meinhold and Carrasco deserve some credit for whatever success Holderman and Nogosek enjoy this season. They both symbolize what a proactive development system can do with players willing to make necessary changes to their game. My hope is that they're just the tip of a wave of young pitchers who will contribute to the Mets bullpen going forward.
Please be well and take care.
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