On Friday, the Pirates announced they were going with the upside of Tyler Glasnow over the present pitchability of Trevor Williams for the 5th spot in the starting rotation. Williams still made the team as a reliever, so shed no tears for him.
I would like to take this moment to be the wet blanket in the room and caution Pirate fans from thinking that Glasnow is a finished product. I find it difficult to believe that one offseason and some tinkering with his changeup have cured the root problem of his control issues. I’m bracing for some ugly walk totals and then hearing from fans how Glasnow is a bust as a starter.
Recently, Alex Stumpf ended an article by saying it was ridiculous to consider moving Glasnow to the bullpen so soon in his career. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with young grasshopper here, as it’s not outside the realm of thinking that Glasnow may be a reliever long-term. This is Glasnow’s age-23 season — he’s not old, but he’s also not young anymore where you can just brush flaws aside by saying ‘there’s still so much time for refinement’. The mortar is almost dry on his brickwork.
I’m as guilty of being seduced by Tyler Glasnow’s ridiculous numbers in the minors as anyone. His drool-inducing strikeout numbers can lead one to daydream about his ultimate ceiling. In his overall career in the minors, he has a very nice round 500 innings and has accrued 645 strikeouts (11.61 K/9). To put this in perspective, even though there’s not a direct translation of stats to the Majors, this rate would have put him in the same company in 2016 as Jose Fernandez (12.49 K/9), Robbie Ray (11.25 K/9), and Max Scherzer (11.19 K/9). He’s also suppressed batters’ ability to get hits off of him in the minors by allowing only 297 hits in those same 500 innings (5.3 H/9).
The issue at hand, and the one that I was shoving to the recesses of my addled brain, is that Glasnow’s walk rate was a yellow flag rippling in the breeze that I should have acknowledged. In those very same 500 innings, Glasnow has walked 246 for a rather unsightly 4.42 BB/9. My personal rule-of-thumb is that 3.50 BB/9 is the cutoff for a high-end pitcher to have success. That 4.42 BB/9 would have been the highest in all of baseball last year among qualified starters.
It’s an inescapable fact that part of Glasnow’s control issues stem from the fact that he resembles a youthful sequoia tree. At his listed 6′-8″ and 220 pounds, there’s a lot of motion in the ocean when he gets all of his parts moving. For me (and others out there, I’m sure), the Goldilocks Zone for a starting pitcher is between 6′-2″ and 6′-5″. Anything above 6′-5″, you start to get into having too big of levers that have to all coordinate at the right time and right place. There are some inherent advantages to being tall, of course, like the fact that with extension towards the plate your perceived velocity gives your pitches less reaction time for hitters. But bigger is not always better, otherwise the 7′-1″ Loek Van Mil would be a stud in the Majors, instead of trolling for a job in the recently completed World Baseball Classic.
Glasnow’s struggles in his nano-sized sample of work in the Majors last year led me to ponder what his path might look like if he were a reliever. It didn’t take me long to consider how Dellin Betances of the Yankees has evolved over the years. Betances was drafted in the 8th round way back in 2006 out of high school and given a $1M signing bonus (at that time a record for that round) to enter pro ball. He was handled with kid gloves, not even reaching full season ball until 2008. It was readily apparent that Betances could strike people out, but also prone to walking a ton of batters. That first full season in 2008 was a preview of his body of work throughout the minors — 121.2 IP, 62 BB (4.59 BB/9), 141 K (10.43 K/9). After a very sharp 2010 (85 IP, 22 BB, 108 K), he immediately regressed and then some in 2011 and 2012, when he pitched a combined 257.2 innings, issued 169 walks (5.90 BB/9) and struck out 266 (9.29 K/9). It appeared to all that the 24-year old’s future was not going to be a starter.
This scouting report from Keith Law prior to the 2012 season, when Law had him ranked as the #83 prospect and Baseball America had him #63, foretold his future role:
At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, Betances is huge, throws hard and has a history of missing bats since coming back from Tommy John surgery. But there’s still a strong sentiment among pro scouts that he ends up in the bullpen long-term because of command questions. He’ll pitch in the low 90s but runs it up to 97 mph and would likely sit 94-97, if not better, in relief. The curveball remains wildly inconsistent, with outings when he doesn’t have it at all and outings when it looks like an above-average pitch.
Keith Law – 2012 Top 100 Prospects
After refining his new role as a reliever in the minors for the vast majority of 2013, Betances was unleashed upon the American League in 2014 and hasn’t looked back as a dominant reliever since then. His stats as a multi-inning reliever type are mind-blowing. Since focusing just on his 98 mph fastball and 84 mph slider, both have played up in velocity in the bullpen. It’s resulted in the following stats during his Major League tenure from 2014-16:
- 247 IP, 92 BB (3.35 BB/9), 392 K (14.28 K/9)
He’s reigned the walks into acceptable levels all while completely embarrassing hitters with his two-pitch mix. Using Fangraphs’ sorting database, Betances has the 3rd highest strikeout rate per 9 among relievers in the 2014-16 timeframe, behind only Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller — that’s good company. In that same three season period, he’s been worth 8.5 WAR. As a reliever, mind you.
Using my Rule of Six (subtract a starting pitcher’s WAR from 6 and that’s essentially if he’s a #1, #2, #3, etc.), Betances has been roughly equivalent to a #3-level starter while pitching as a reliever. It’s always better to maximize value out of pitcher as a starter, but would it better to watch Glasnow struggle as a #4-#5 with his control issues or to see him dominate as a reliever instead? Betances has shown that there is plenty of value to be had as a multi-inning reliever.
This is one of those articles that I hope I’m wrong about down the line. I wouldn’t mind eating crow if Glasnow fulfills his destiny to become a high-end #2/low-end #1 starter. But the control issues I glazed over in the past have me woke in the present. I’m just looking towards the future now.