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.



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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.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Lonely Guy
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Lonely Guy
1 year 8 months ago

Love the idea.

Pirates Hurdles
Guest
Pirates Hurdles
1 year 8 months ago

His story is practically Ricky Vaughn minus the prison term. Its just so much fun to pull for him.

Johnston
Guest
1 year 8 months ago

Great description!

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest
Well-Beered Englishman
1 year 8 months ago

I’m thrilled that my love of Chelsea Peretti, my love of FanGraphs, and my love of professional eccentricity have all intersected. John Holdzkom NERD score: 10,000.

Matty Brown
Member
Member
Matty Brown
1 year 8 months ago

both of his pitches seem to be able to break both ways, interesting, almost like having 4 pitches.

Darkstone42
Member
Darkstone42
1 year 8 months ago

I noticed that, too. I thought he threw a 2-seamer and a cutter, and a palmball and a slider. I can’t decide if those four movements being two pitches should make them more effective or less effective, though…

In any case, I love watching him pitch. The stuff is definitely there. A fastball that hard with that movement from a guy whose release point is that close to the plate is going to be tough for a lot of guys to hit. Throw in what looks to be a pretty filthy off-speed pitch as a change of pace, and he could be pretty good in one-inning relief appearances.

Darkstone42
Member
Darkstone42
1 year 8 months ago

Yet another scoreless outing. Man, he’s been sharp.

leeroy
Guest
leeroy
1 year 8 months ago

Worth noting that most of his “peers” on that list are LHP, who are more able to get away with a high FB%. The only 2 RHP are Schlitter and Jansen. You can make the argument that Schlitter isn’t very good. So that leaves Jansen, who is almost exclusively cutter. So hopefully Holdzkom gets enough cut on his ball where he can be successful as an RHP throwing that many FB. Otherwise he may end up looking more like Schlitter, albeit slightly better velo.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
1 year 8 months ago

Jim Konstanty was probably most famous for the palm ball. 1950 MVP playing for the Phils. Dave Giusti threw one. Ewell Blackwell. Bullet Joe Rogan in the Negro Leagues.

Bob Friend may have been the best pitcher to throw one. It was called a slip pitch, taught by Paul Richards for years, but pretty much the same thing.

Eddie Guardado also threw one.

All from the Neyer/James book.

Will
Guest
Will
1 year 8 months ago

So Holdzkom make three Pirates, at least, who threw the palmball.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
1 year 8 months ago

Yeah I guess so. Friend, Giusti and now Holdzkom. Good call.

Bobby Ayala
Member
Member
1 year 8 months ago

Free Pat Venditte!

pitnick
Guest
pitnick
1 year 8 months ago

$200,000 buys a lot of sushi.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
1 year 8 months ago

Fugu 3 times a day.

joser
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joser
1 year 8 months ago

In New York City, not as much as you might think. There was also the car.

(And then there’s the women he’s buying the sushi for. You think those next-morning gift baskets pay for themselves?)

Spencer
Guest
Spencer
1 year 8 months ago

He was in Port St. Lucie, not NYC

primi timpano
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primi timpano
1 year 8 months ago

200k does not go very far in NYC, even on foot and avoiding sushi restaurants.

james wilson
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james wilson
1 year 8 months ago

A lot of independent league managers could be talked into taking a look at a guy with a high nineties fastball.

Jim S.
Guest
Jim S.
1 year 8 months ago

My father, who was born in 1918, threw a palm ball. He actually learned it as a fast-pitch softball pitcher, playing as an adult in the early 40s (that was before slow-pitch softball). We’d play catch in the back yard with a baseball and that thing would break straight down. That’s somewhat different than what I’m seeing in the video, and I’m wondering if the definition has changed somewhat.

Sean
Guest
Sean
1 year 8 months ago

Or it could just be dependent on arm angle. My guess is it’s the grip, more than the plane, that really defines the pitch.

Izzy
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Izzy
1 year 8 months ago

“…and he was known for his selective maturity, which he’d rarely select.”

I love the way Jeff Sullivan writes.

Michael
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Michael
1 year 8 months ago

The first pitcher I saw that threw a palmball and the name that comes to mind for me first when I hear a palmball mentioned is Joe Boever, a reliever from the late 80s and early 90s. I started watching baseball in ’88 and I loved the Braves despite them still being terrible at that point. (Superstation TBS!) Boever had 21 saves for them in 1989 so I thought he and his palmball were pretty good then but that was the high mark of his closer career. Also, this has nothing to do with anything but I have a strange mental association or memory of me eating an entire pack of saltine crackers once while watching him pitch. Why this memory stuck, I have no idea.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Boever

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmball

That page has Robinson Tejeda and Orlando Hernandez as two other more recent names of guys that threw a palmball. I vaguely remember Bryn Smith pitching for the Expos, mostly that he had a beard.

Dave Cornutt
Guest
Dave Cornutt
1 year 8 months ago

I vaguely recall that David Palmer, who was with the Braves for a while in the mid-’80s, threw the palm ball and may have taught it to Boever. Palmer was in Montreal before he came to Atlanta, at about the same time as Bryn Smith, so maybe there were several pitchers there at the time who were throwing it. (Steve Rogers? Bill Lee? Scott Sanderson?) I think Vern Rapp was their pitching coach at the time… will have to look up some info on him.

Mark Woodyear
Guest
Mark Woodyear
1 year 8 months ago

I had a palm ball that I would throw some in American Legion. Mine broke mostly down and slightly left, but it was VERY SLOW. I think his arm speed and ¾ delivery and maybe even a slight slider motion could create what you see. Almost a slurve. Whatever, it’s a great story. I watched his first appearance and was chuckling a little watching Russell Martin have some trouble catching it, and the passed ball strike out was very funny. Let’s hope he can maintain his command. Great story.

Dead Serious
Guest
Dead Serious
1 year 8 months ago

I threw a palmball in little league. It had other names as well, like, “meatball” and “batting practice”.

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