Nobody rises to the top without some ups and downs along the way. In a universe where entropy rules supreme, it’s only appropriate that there be setbacks when one aspires to be great. In baseball, this holds especially true. And for Blue Jays prospect Clinton Hollon, well, entropy could be his middle name.
Hollon is not your run of the mill minor leaguer. He’s not quite that top prospect that everybody knows as soon as they are drafted. Instead, he lies somewhere in the middle. But that doesn’t mean his story isn’t interesting. All that Hollon has been through, at such a young age, has created a narrative that is unique, and has added so much to his character. From day one, it has been different.
When he was around three years old, Hollon’s mother started to take him out to the front yard and play catch; instilling in him a love for baseball that would eventually lead him to pursue it professionally. A game of catch, as it so often does, led to tee-ball. After Hollon moved in with his father and step-mother at age five, he started playing in better, and more advanced, leagues. In an interview conducted recently, Hollon said that in these early days, playing baseball was what he liked to do. Although similar to many others, in that he played multiple sports as a child, Hollon said playing baseball, “just felt right [to him]. The fact that Clinton Hollon was gifted with baseball skills far beyond his years likely contributed to this feeling.
In seventh grade, a full two years ahead of his age group, Hollon made the local high school baseball team. At his freshman tryout two years later, he reached 90 mph on the radar gun for the first time. It was around this time that he said to himself that he could, “really do something with [baseball]”. He decided to focus on the sport, specifically being a pitcher, and moving away from the shortstop position where children who excel are usually placed. Hollon continued on this path for two years before hitting the first bump in the road.
In the summer before his junior year of high school, Hollon tore his ulnar collateral ligament. Fortunately the tear wasn’t very severe and he was able to rehab the injury as if it was tendinitis, strengthening everything around the ligament in order to relieve some of the pressure. Theoretically, if everything surrounding the ligament was stronger, then there would be less work for it to do. This worked.
Many Jays prospects were in the news last summer, thanks to the flurry of deadline deals executed by former GM Alex Anthopoulos. Clinton Hollon was also in the news, but for a completely different reason. On August 21st, Hollon was suspended for 50 games by the Office of the Commissioner for the use of an illegal amphetamine. Major League Baseball told him the results were consistent with somebody who was using Adderall. Hollon disagrees, and told me a completely different story.
In 2015, during the last few days that he spent in extended spring training before leaving to play for the Vancouver Canadians, Hollon was involved in a car accident. Although nobody was seriously injured, Hollon says that he suffered an, “enflamed SI joint,” from the accident, the after effect of which he still feels to this day. The SI joint, for those unaware, connects the sacrum and ilium, two bones that make up the vast majority of the pelvic region. The joint is also involved with supporting the human spine. This means that any inflammation can cause serious pain to a normal person, never mind somebody who is expected to be at a peak physical condition day in and day out. “I got prescribed a pain killer and an anti-inflammatory,” Hollon said, as he recounted his visit to the doctor after the accident. He stressed that both of these were the “generic versions” of the medicine and that it was these drugs that caused him to test positive for amphetamines; not Adderall. He hadn’t been taking the pills he was prescribed with any regularity. Instead, he only used them whenever the pain made him feel uncomfortable. One of those times was a few days prior to his drug test. “We had been on the road. It was one of our longer bus trips [of] 6-8 hours, and I pitched the next day. I was a little stiff, so I took the pain killer and the anti-inflammatory.”
You’re probably wondering how one of the drugs he took triggered a failed test for amphetamines. Hollon told me a story involving his mother’s workplace: a doctor’s office. At this doctor’s office, one of their head doctors had a case where he gave one of his patients the medications that Hollon was prescribed. The patient then failed a job drug test for the same amphetamine, one that shouldn’t be in that medicine. Hollon was adamant that the pain killers and anti-inflammatories were “the only thing that [he] took.” He explained that he had already been suspended, so there was no reason for him to lie about it. Furthermore, Hollon had actually been prescribed Adderall in high school, but did not take it when he pitched, noting that he “didn’t like how the adderall made [him] feel,” and that it made him lose a lot of weight. “I’m a competitor, I have never had any problems getting locked into games,” he reiterated.
With all of that information, Hollon felt he had a pretty solid case to get the suspension overturned via an appeal. Unfortunately, due to the lack of a minor league union, that turned out to be a nearly impossible. Major League Baseball immediately threw out the appeal, and Hollon had to begin serving his suspension right away. Although this would be ample cause to be miserable for most people, Hollon served 23 games with a positive outlook on the situation.
“Everything happens for a reason I just hope that people don’t look at [me] differently. I know that I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just going to try to come off of it and do my best, and nothing like that will ever happen again.”
After rehabbing his torn UCL, Hollon went on to finish his high school career with a bang. His school won the state championship in Kentucky in 2012, while Hollon was named a Rawlings First Team All-American in 2013 after pitching 57 innings of 0.61 ERA ball. However, underlying all of his success was a still torn UCL. This caused his draft stock to fall, and with it his ability to demand a high bonus. Thus he ended up signing for only 40% of the $1,168,200 slot value assigned to his draft position. However, Hollon didn’t care about the money. “I was going to [sign] no matter what. My dream is to play professional ball, and I thought that the earlier I could get that ball rolling, the better.”
Unfortunately, during extended spring training less than a year later, Hollon began to notice a drop in his velocity. Because his velocity had previously been consistent in the lead up to the draft, Dr. James Andrews recommended no operation at the time. However, now that his fastball fell to 89 mph from a previous high of 96 mph, Tommy John Surgery was on the table. Athletes who are forced to miss time due to injury usually complain most about missing their teammates while they are away rehabbing. Hollon was no different. He said that, “the toughest part [was] sitting out and being a competitor [while] watching everybody else”. Thankfully, when Hollon’s life on the field started to get rough, his life off the field became more meaningful than ever before. His now fiancée gave birth to a baby boy a couple of weeks after the 2013 minor league season ended, which changed his entire outlook on the injury.
“That took a lot of my mind off of the rehab. I was still doing it everyday, but I didn’t have really have time to dwell on the injury. I think it made me work harder. [I was] not working just for myself anymore, but I was working for my son’s life. If I didn’t take the rehab seriously I might not have come back as well as I did. It was really working for him and to make him have an easier life [than I did].”
In order to achieve that goal, Hollon worked with Blue Jays pitching coordinator Sal Fasano on refining his delivery to avoid future injuries. He kept the same basic footwork of his mechanics, but changed to an over the head motion.
The results were encouraging for Hollon once he made his return to game action on June 18th with the Vancouver Canadians. The new mechanics added some sink to his fastball that he had not seen before. At the end of July, after giving up just seven earned runs through 25 innings pitched, he earned a promotion to Lansing.
His first start for the Lansing Lugnuts was a masterpiece. After allowing a single and two walks in the first inning, he settled down and retired the last nineteen batters he faced, ending the evening after seven innings of shutout ball. However, the results don’t tell the whole story. Hollon actually said he didn’t have it in the first game. “I was really struggling. I didn’t have command, I just battled. I was sitting 2-0, sitting 3-2. I threw 30-35 pitches in the first inning, and I only had 80 pitches to throw in the game. I’m a competitor. I like to think of myself as a bulldog on the mound.”
In his second start at the level, Hollon had similarly good results with 4 2/3 shutout innings, but the final start was an absolute meltdown. He gave up six earned runs in 1 2/3 innings. Hollon called it “the worst outing” he had ever had in his life. What causes such a disastrous showing? Although he said he doesn’t want to blame it on the suspension, he did note that the final start came, “a couple of days before [he] got the news about the suspension.” From a mental standpoint, he doesn’t think that he was at his sharpest.
Clinton Hollon has 27 games left in his suspension. The 23 he served at the end of last season actually included five playoff games. He missed those. Not being there for his team is something you would think he would be used to because of the surgery. Well, Hollon said the feeling of not contributing because of a suspension is a lot different than it was when he under the knife. “It’s a lot worse. I felt like I really let my team down. I was very apologetic to the coaches and the organization. Even though I don’t feel like I did anything wrong, I told them I will make it up to them 110 percent.”
He’s been trying to do that this offseason by working extra hard. Among the aspects of his game that have been tweaked are his landing mechanics. The goal is for him to be stronger and more firm when he lands. To be more mechanically sound, but also to try to establish a little more downward plane on his fastball. As well, in addition to the basic tinkering that most pitchers do from time to time, he will be adding a new pitch when he reports to spring training. Something that the Blue Jays have had a lot of success with lately has been the two seam fastball. As mentioned earlier, his post-surgery mechanics have resulted in his four seam fastball picking up sink. The thinking is that if he learns a two seam grip, it can be a major weapon.
Because Hollon won’t be able to get into games until May, the team has given him an extended off-season and he won’t be going to Dunedin for spring training until April. This has allowed him to spend more time with his son, which he doesn’t get to do often during the baseball season. Last year Hollon missed his son’s first steps, as well as him saying ‘dada’ for the first time. He reiterated again that although it was rough, he knows that he has to push through. “As much as I’m doing [this] for myself and for my dreams, I’m doing it to try to make his life easier than mine was.”
In 2016, Hollon hopes to end the season in New Hampshire, the Blue Jays Double-A affiliate. Other than that, he said he only has one other goal on his mind, “I just want to be a winner at whatever cost…other than cheating”.