Monday, September 1, 2014

Rags to Riches: John Holdzkom

Neal Huntington suggested there may be a surprise call-up or two for September, and right off the bat we get hit with a John Holdzkom sighting. He's a pretty interesting guy.

Born in Pasadena, he has a Kiwi father, which will later play into his tale. He went to Rancho Cucamongo HS, where he didn't pitch a whole lot and butted heads with his coach. Still, he was a huge kid and could bring some heat, becoming a 15th round draft pick of Seattle in 2005.

He didn't reach a deal with the Mariners and enrolled at Salt Lake City JC instead. That turned the trick, as the Mets drafted him in the fourth round and inked him to a $210K deal the following year.

Holdzkom pitched sparingly in the rookie leagues for a couple of season, and not very well. He worked 34-1/3 innings and gave up 26 earned runs while walking 27 and whiffing 33. The righty was marginally better in 2008, earning a promotion to Savannah in the Sally League after a short-season Kingston stint, but his control issues stayed with him. There may have been a reason for it beyond just plain wildness; he ended up with TJ surgery.

The youngster missed nearly two full seasons recovering from the procedure. After working a few innings in 2010, the Mets released him after spring training in 2011, and no wonder - he had walked 112 batters in the 126 minor league innings he pitched, none at a class higher than low A ball. Holdzkom sat out the season and the Reds signed him over the winter; 8-2/3 innings and 13 walks later, they cut him loose, too.

Much of his performance was of his own doing; he called into a New York talk show and told the hostess how he had frittered away his bonus on a truck, sushi and partying. Give a kid some money and a lot of free time...

Here's where his Kiwi dad re-enters the story. He played for the Canberra Cavalry of the Australian Baseball League in 2012, which led to a spot on the New Zealand in the World Baseball Classic. The following year, he pitched some for the Adelaide Bite. Baseball being what it is in Australia, he had to pick up a part-time job sorting mail.

he returned stateside, and pitched Indy ball for the Amarillo Sox, Sioux City Explorers and San Angelo Colts from 2013 into early 2014. His control was still eccentric, but Pirate scout Mal Fichman ocaught a couple of his outings with Sioux Falls and reported that Holdzkom’s two-seam fastball was 94-96, his four seamer 94-97 and “touched 98-99″.

That was enough for Tyrone Brooks, the Pirates’ director of player personnel, to buy Holdzkom’s contract and send him to Altoona. Oh, and did we mention that he had the one thing that the Pirates love but can't teach? Yah, he's a tree, standing 6'7" (with some sites reporting him as 6'9", so you can take 6-7 to the bank).

Long story short: in six innings for the Curve, he struck out 10 and walked two. He was quickly given a ticket to Indy, where he's worked 21-2/3 IP, with his wild child returning with 10 walks but also ringing up 27 punch outs. Now he's on the 40-man roster and seemingly a day away from the show after starting the year playing indy ball. Ain't America grand?

The 26 year old is a great feel good story, and he's mentioned improved focus and learning the grind as part of his progression. But he's still a project, even if an interesting one.

The first process involves repetition; his control is bad because his release isn't consistent. The kid has had only about 250 innings of work since becoming a pro, and except for 27-2/3 frames at Altoona and Indy, those innings have been tossed in rookie, low A, indy and Australian ballyards. The other side of the coin is that he's hopefully not locked into bad habits because of that lack of repetition.

The bigger issue is that he has no offspeed pitch. At the levels he's been at, there's probably been no need; with his heat is was just a matter of throwing a strike or not. But apparently the Pirates feel like they can coach him up, and here he is, the first off-the-radar blip of September.

The stretch run just got a little more interesting.

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