The Next Great Hope in Pittsburgh, Again

The Pirates, last year, finished under .500. The Pirates, this year, will almost certainly finish under .500 again. There’s been no shortage of bad breaks, bouts of misfortune no one could’ve seen coming, but the shine, you could say, is off the apple. Late last week, Travis wrote about a disconnect between how fans seem to feel about the team, and how they arguably ought to. In the slightly bigger picture, the Pirates have been a tremendous success, yet there’s no making up for lousy results in the present.

The Pirates are a team in need of a jolt. That doesn’t mean they ought to rebuild. Nor does it mean they ought to play in the upper tier of free agency. What the Pirates could really use is the emergence of a bright young talent from their own internal system. Nothing’s more valuable than a young and homegrown star, and there’s a player now for the fan base to dream on. Spoiler alert: It’s Tyler Glasnow again. This time, though, he could be ready to deliver.

Glasnow turned 24 years old last month. Last winter, he made his fourth consecutive appearance within the Baseball America top-50. For that matter, he made his third consecutive appearance within the BA top-25. There’s never been any question about Glasnow’s stuff, and given that he stands 6’8, there’s never been any question about his build. Glasnow has long had the talent he’s needed for the major leagues. What he didn’t have was the control. It’s not the sort of development that you can just assume.

Glasnow debuted in the majors last summer. Earlier this year, he continued to pitch with the Pirates. Combined, he’s already thrown nearly 80 big-league innings, but he’s posted an ERA- of 153. His 128 FIP- hardly reflects anything positive. This past summer, Glasnow bottomed out, earning himself a trip back to Triple-A. He simply wasn’t any good, and it all began with his missing the strike zone.

Glasnow, in the majors, threw about 60% strikes. His rate was only three points lower than average, but with strike rate, every single point is important, and there’s not a particularly wide spread between the best and the worst. It might seem like Glasnow wasn’t far off from the mean, yet his strike rate ranked him in the 11th percentile. It was plainly evident he struggled with location, and so he went to Triple-A to work on his mechanics.

It’s not the only time we’ve heard that suggestion. Glasnow’s had mechanical efforts documented before, and entering 2017 spring training, there was chatter about how he’d spent six months cleaning everything up. Current feedback is positive, and I suppose it would be easy to be cynical, given where Glasnow has been in the past. But there’s a difference between this talk and the talk from last spring. This time, there are results to point to. Tyler Glasnow went down to Triple-A, and he turned into a monster.

Glasnow started 15 games for Indianapolis. I downloaded all the minor-league numbers and narrowed to pitchers, at any and all levels, who made at least 10 starts. Out of that entire player pool, Glasnow posted the highest strikeout rate, just a hair or two shy of 40%. Obviously, it’s great to know that Glasnow was leaving his opponents flummoxed. But even more encouraging is that Glasnow managed to throw some strikes again. He threw consistent strikes for the first time since he was promoted from Double-A in 2015.

This plot shows Glasnow’s entire professional career, treating all levels the same. You’re seeing his K-BB% in rolling 10-game chunks. The thin red vertical line shows when Glasnow moved from Double-A to Triple-A. It was against that most advanced minor-league competition that Glasnow started to lose the zone.

There’s no challenge of interpretation here. You can see when Glasnow started to get worse. You can also see when he abruptly turned things around. That’s this summer, and to take a more granular look, here are Glasnow’s rolling strike rates and contact rates. This goes back only to 2014, because of data limitations, but the earliest numbers don’t really matter these days, anyhow. The red line means the same thing here as above.

Glasnow has never been that easy to hit. Even in his first stint in Triple-A, when he started to lose the zone, he still kept his ERA under 2. Recently, he’s become even more unhittable. But the blue line is the big one. Glasnow’s strike rates against the most advanced competition dipped into the 50s. More recently he’s sorted things out, to the point where about two out of every three pitches have been strikes. Glasnow’s gone from being a below-average strike-thrower to being an above-average strike-thrower. When you fold in the quality of his stuff, well, you can see why people have always said he has a high ceiling. Strike throwers who limit contact make up the pool from which aces are picked.

Last winter, the plan for Glasnow was to try to slow things down. The adjustment this summer has been to speed things back up, to where they were when Glasnow was younger. Glasnow, also, has begun to pitch exclusively from the stretch, which several other pitchers have done in an effort to simplify.

After his demotion, Glasnow studied video from when he was in Double- and High-A and tweaked his mechanics. Pitching solely out of the stretch was his biggest change. Glasnow said it has sped up his delivery, making it smoother and more athletic.

Stephen J. Nesbitt has more details on Glasnow’s attempted transformation. We can’t consider it a matter of fact that Glasnow is now on the right track, because wild pitchers always need to prove themselves at the highest level, and Glasnow has been a work in progress for years. Yet Glasnow, now, is the best that he’s been. At least anecdotally, Glasnow’s stuff has been playing up in the minors, and those pitches are made all the more fearsome by the knowledge that no other pitcher adds as much extra velocity through his extension. Glasnow throws hard, and, to the hitters, his pitches look harder. Now Glasnow has a better idea where the pitches are going. It’s the beginning of the leap he needed to make, and now he just needs to carry it into the National League.

If he does it, that’s it. That’s the arrival of Tyler Glasnow, possible future ace of the Pirates. Nothing is certain until the good pitches are actually pitched, and pitched to good hitters, but Glasnow has never before been more encouraging. Even a losing season in Pittsburgh might not be entirely lost.

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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.

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Pirates Hurdles
Pirates Hurdles

Man, I sure hope so. He is a really nice kid and the talent level is so high.