There’s a lot of excitement buzzing around the Toronto Blue Jays organization right now as the club went all in at the trade deadline and built a playoff-caliber ball club at the major league level. While fans are excited, and rightfully so, it came with a hefty price tag as the organization dealt away 11 pitching prospects in the process of building a contender.
While stripping the cupboard will probably pay dividends this postseason, it has put a major emphasis on keeping and developing the pitching prospects the organization has left, as the number of quality arms dropped drastically in the last month.
But there’s no reason for fans to panic just yet, as the organization saved a couple arms to focus on future needs. While fans are familiar with Sean Reid-Foley and Conner Greene, there’s another name that Blue Jays fans should get acquainted with in Clinton Hollon.
Selected in the second round of the 2013 MLB draft out of Woodford County High School in Kentucky, the prospect chose to pursue a professional career instead of attending his home state university.
“Being drafted by the Blue Jays was awesome. It was my childhood dream coming to life,” stated Hollon. “I had an offer to go to the University of Kentucky which was nice. But I really wanted to begin my professional career. My goal is to get to the big leagues and I wanted to start on that path as soon as possible.”
Despite being selected high in the draft, some fans have forgotten about Hollon as he went through Tommy John surgery after his first professional season. This process made him miss the entire 2014 season and shortened his 2015, but he has made up for lost time.
Starting his season in extended spring training, Hollon had some extra work to put in to make sure his arm was in tip-top shape for the challenges of playing professional baseball on a daily basis. While he was putting the finishes touches on his rehabilitation process, there was another area the prospect admits he was working on as well.
“In extended I was rehabbing a lot after coming back from Tommy John surgery,” explained Hollon. “But I mostly worked on my front foot and landing it in a straight line. Sometimes I bend my knee and spin off when I land my foot so I was really focusing on that in extended.”
Putting his surgically repaired elbow to the test initially in the Northwest League as a member of the Vancouver Canadians, it quickly became evident that Hollon was ready for a bigger challenge after just nine starts which saw the prospect maintain an impressive 1.15 WHIP.
Promoted to the Blue Jays Midwest League affiliate the Lansing Lugnuts in August was just the test that the 20-year-old Hollon needed to prove where he was in his minor league development. The prospect made three starts in Lansing before a suspension shortened his season.
Finding consistency in the strike zone was a bit of an issue in his 13 1/3 innings in the Midwest League as he walked seven batters while striking out just five as a member of the Lugnuts’ rotation. But a really promising sign was the fact that hitters only managed a .224 average against him, just one point higher than opposing hitters managed against him in Vancouver.
Even though he had to step away from the game for over a year, Hollon is satisfied with where his velocity is at right now in his career. While a lot of pitchers have Tommy John due to an elbow injury, the righty took the risk of having the surgery due to declining velocity in 2013.
“My velocity hasn’t changed too much since having Tommy John. If anything it’s gone up a bit,” explained Hollon. “That’s why I had the surgery, because my velocity was dropping a little bit. In my first outing I was between 93 and 95 miles per hour. It goes down at times, but I have the ability to touch 95 at times. Right now it’s getting used to pitching with the off-speed pitches again as my arm strength continues to get better.”
The rehabilitation from Tommy John can be grueling for a lot of pitchers as they have to get used to the physical demands of pitching again after a long absence. But that wasn’t the case for Hollon, who thought the process was more of a mental struggle than anything.
“The rehab process was more of a mental grind for me than physical,” explained Hollon. “My arm felt good as soon as I got the extension put in. But I had a son in the off-season, so that took a lot of the mental side of the game away from me while I was rehabbing from Tommy John. Taking care of my son change my mindset a bit, but I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”
Finding success with a four-pitch mix, Hollon uses a fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup in his repertoire. But despite his excellent command, the organization played it safe with the righty as they had him on a 75- to 80-pitch limit all season.
Having the opportunity to see two different levels in one year has given Hollon a better idea what each step of the minor league experience is like as hitters get more selective on what they’re waiting for in certain counts.
“The hitters are about the same between the two levels,” said Hollon. “In the Midwest League they’re a little more disciplined. The hitters in the Midwest League do a better job at waiting for a particular pitch. But as a pitcher if you keep your pitches down it should be about the same at every level. Obviously the hitters are going to get better the more you move up, but if you’re hitting your spots and keeping the ball down hitters will get themselves out seven times out of ten. This happens, because hitting is really hard.”
Another big change for Hollon since beginning his professional career is getting used to throwing more off-speed pitches to get outs in professional baseball. With high school pitchers focusing more on the fastball than anything, Hollon knew it was going to take more than that to get outs as a professional.
“In pro ball I feel the changeup plays a bigger role than in high school,” explained Hollon. “I think being able to throw your off-speed pitches for strikes when you’re behind in counts is critical in pro ball. That way you’re not just laying a fastball down the middle. In pro ball you definitely want to pitch off your fastball as long as you’re locating your fastball down in the zone. You really can’t just throw the off-speed pitches on the corners, you need to throw them middle of the plate and down. Those are the biggest changes I’ve seen since going pro. That and the need of a quality changeup are the biggest differences.”
Getting completely healthy after Tommy John can take a long time, but it’s obvious that Clinton Hollon is on the right path to fully recover and continue chasing his dream of pitching in the major leagues one day.
Blue Jays fans couldn’t be happier.