Holton perseveres in road from Tommy John surgery to majors

Tyler Holton was always composed and took a positive attitude into any baseball situation. And he has faced the full spectrum since February 2018.

A season of high expectations ended in the fifth inning on Opening Day in 2018 as Holton needed Tommy John (elbow) surgery. He was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks that summer, continuing his rehabilitation, but it wasn’t until about 16 months later, July 2019, that he would pitch in a minor league baseball game. And then in 2020 the COVID pandemic canceled the minor league season. Holton returned in 2021, starting some games and relieving others in Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno.

The journey was rewarded last week when Holton received a phone call that elevated him to the Diamondbacks’ taxi squad, a group of substitute players ready to be called up to the majors and join the team. With a few Diamondbacks pitchers testing positive for COVID, Holton was called into manager Torey Lovullo’s office.

“You always think about what that moment would be like,” Holton said. “It’s never really something that you can prepare for, I guess. You live your whole life preparing for that moment. And I don’t know if it was just my situation or what but it didn’t really hit me in that moment. I was called to the taxi squad that day. I was preparing the whole day as a taxi squad guy, didn’t want to get my hopes up, expectations up to play. It was just excited to be there. But throughout the day, players and even some coaches hinted into that. ‘Stay ready.’ And I didn’t know if that was just saying that just to keep me on my toes.”

Holton didn’t have but a few hours and began to make some phone calls. His wife, Storme, was able to make the trip to St. Louis, although his family didn’t yet make the trip from Tallahassee.

“I didn’t really have time to think too much about it and I just went into my pregame routine and went down to the bullpen,” Holton said. “Did my bullpen routine. Just stayed ready to go. Definitely had the jitters. First several throws in the bullpen were a little high. Arm was very lively. Had to kind of slow my heart rate a little bit. And then even in the game was spraying the fastball a little bit but it was a surreal moment. And just very, very fortunate and blessed to have that opportunity.”

After all the games, and a detour due to injury, Holton was in the majors. He pitched an inning on April 28, giving up two hits but recording a strikeout in a scoreless inning of relief. Holton spoke with the Osceola earlier this week from Miami, where he was connecting with family as the Diamondbacks were in town to play the Marlins.

The circle change-up was your best pitch at Florida State. How have you developed other pitches these past few years in the minors to get outs?

Holton: Last year, I developed a cut fastball and that really helped as a contact kind of pitch. I throw a four-seam fastball. I’ve always thrown a four-seam fastball. It’s pretty straight. And so just having something that’s also pretty hard that looks like a fastball that moves just a little bit. Really helped the back half of my season last year, and then I even played around with a two-seam fastball, just something going the other direction from the cutter. Just playing around with a lot of different pitches. It’s kind of crazy because when I was younger, I tried all of these pitches as well and I couldn’t make the baseball move like I wanted to. And then you go away from those pitches for six to eight years, and then you come back to it as a professional and just my release point might be a little bit more consistent, my grip is a little bit pure, whatever it may be. Now I’m able to make the ball cut, sink and move. And so it’s pretty fun to learn new pitches. I’ve always thrown my curveball and change-up as well. Just trying to see what kind of curveball grip is the best and most consistent really because hitters will let you know whether you miss too bad over the plate or a pitch is too recognizable. You’re just kind of editing your pitches every year because, as they say, ‘If it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.’ And so always trying to critique your arsenal to clean it up a little bit and make it better each year.

In any given outing you can go out on the mound with five pitches. How does that mix help?

Holton: Technically there’s five pitches. Three of them are fastballs. And I don’t have an overwhelming velocity facing hitters. But some guys can throw the three fastballs and just make it cut, make it sink and just miss the barrel. At this level, it doesn’t matter what pitch you throw. You’re just trying to throw whatever you get outs with. It’s crazy that I’ve added pitches since I’ve gotten drafted and they’ve worked out. I don’t throw them every game necessarily but just to have them in the arsenal definitely helps in trying to keep hitters off balance.

What prompted the move from starting to the bullpen?

Holton: I’ve always been open to it. I know that a lot of pitchers end up making their transition to a bullpen role and I was never opposed to it. And I know that’s how a lot of guys end up making their way to the big leagues. And so it always seemed like if that was going to help my career, I should probably do it. And it’s pretty valuable for teams to have those guys that can bounce back and forth. And I was told that and so, really, I just wanted to be a big leaguer and that’s why we play this game and I figured that it was probably the best decision for my career and just learning the new role. You got to ask a lot of the other bullpen guys on the team because it is different. Everyone has their own routine. You just got to find what yours should be and what works for you.

We won’t make you revisit your last mound appearance at FSU. But how much do you appreciate the guidance of doctors, trainers and strength and conditioning coaches to help you rehab and get back?

Holton: There’s so many people that helped me through that journey that I wouldn’t be able to recognize everybody. The way that I looked at it was that injury in particular is so common these days with baseball. And I tried to really look at it as I’m blessed to be able to play this game long enough that I might have to overcome some kind of setback. That was my moment, and that’s how I embraced it. And I felt like it was a new start. I also got drafted (ninth round in 2018) in that process and it really felt like a new beginning. And I got thrown into the rehab with the Diamondbacks right away. And it was almost just a new perspective with baseball because I knew I wasn’t going to be playing for a long time. And so I was able to watch the game from a different perspective, learn more, ask questions with guys that I was rehabbing with. There were big leaguers, there were former big leaguers, there were all different types of players in rehab. And I was just the new guy and no one really knew if I would come back. No one really had their expectations on me just yet. I was like a fly on the wall just trying to learn and get better … It was really a fresh start. What was really cool was I was talking to some of our trainers that are with the major league team now. They were minor league trainers and minor league physical therapists when I was drafted and they were here for my debut. And I was just saying how it was pretty cool to have them here for my debut because, for the first year of my professional career, I spent it with them. And they acknowledge that coincidence or just that circumstance and they said, ‘We’ve all been very happy to see your progress and to have you make it to the show. It’s very special for us as it is obviously for you.’ It was just a pretty, pretty cool moment.

You’ve been friends and teammates with Cole Sands since elementary school. How fun was it to see him get called up by the Twins?

Holton: We reached out to each other whenever we each got the call. And to see him succeed at this level, I knew he would. I was able to run into him last year when we were both in Double-A and we were catching up there. And he was balling out and it was fun to watch. I was just in the dugout telling our other guys, ‘He’s good. You better get ready to hit because he’s coming at you.’ I’m happy for him.

You’ve been playing most nights the past few months but have you been able to keep up with FSU baseball? Have you been able to see Parker Messick or Bryce Hubbart throw?

Holton: Those guys are nasty. They’ve got some really good left-handed arms on that on that team. And it’s fun to watch. … It’s crazy that that those guys are there at the same time. Being a fellow southpaw, it’s fun to watch.