The Tampa Bay Rays are in first place in the American League East, thanks largely to a pitching staff with the best ERA+ in baseball (139). But the key to the pitching staff so far hasn’t been reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, or veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, whose $15 million-a-year contract is the richest the Rays have ever given to a free agent. Even the opener experiment that made so many headlines last year has produced mixed results: Opener Ryne Stanek has held opponents to a .171/.209/.366 line in eight truncated starts, but the lefty long reliever who usually wears the trenchcoat and sits on Stanek’s shoulders, Ryan Yarbrough, was sent to the minors with an ERA north of 8.00.
No, the best pitcher on the Rays so far this year has been 25-year-old Tyler Glasnow, who leads the Rays, and indeed all AL starters, with a 1.75 ERA and is tied for the league lead with a perfect 5-0 record. He’s second in the AL in K/BB ratio and fourth among AL pitchers in bWAR.
All of this is quite a departure from the results the former top-15 global prospect produced over parts of three seasons with the Pirates: 141 1/3 innings, with a 71 ERA+ and BB/9 ratio of 5.8.
Once considered a potential no. 1 starter, Glasnow made 34 forgettable relief appearances in Pittsburgh in 2018, before the Pirates traded him to Tampa Bay along with another top prospect, outfielder Austin Meadows, for right-hander Chris Archer. The Rays reinstated Glasnow to the rotation, where he was serviceable in 11 starts—4.20 ERA and a 10.3 K/9 ratio, but with 10 home runs allowed—but not spectacular.
Early in the 2019 season, Glasnow has not only salvaged his career, but he’s turned into a genuine frontline starter. Even though the Rays live and die by their ability to turn reclamation prospects into good big league players, Glasnow’s emergence has been shocking.
Often times, when a pitcher makes the kind of leap Glasnow has, it’s the result of adding a new pitch or making some other radical change in approach. Glasnow says that while he’s tweaked his offseason conditioning program, his mechanics and arsenal are the same as they’ve always been—he’s just thinking about pitching differently. More specifically, on the mound he’s thinking less.
“I was just consciously thinking about what I was doing, as opposed to being athletic,” says Glasnow over the phone. “So I think, for the most part, everything is the same. But I’m just moving faster and adjusting athletically, as opposed to a step-by-step process.”
Glasnow’s stuff has never been in question, just his ability to command it. Only by relaxing and trusting his stuff has he been able to unlock the rest of the puzzle.
Three or four years ago, Glasnow was expected to be one of the best pitchers in baseball by 2019. A 2011 fifth-round pick out of a Southern California high school, Glasnow was one of baseball’s best pitching prospects. Earlier this decade, the Pirates developed an affinity for drafting gigantic, hard-throwing right-handed pitchers; most notably Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but also Glasnow, who stands 6-foot-8 and can crank his four-seamer up to 101 miles an hour.
As you might expect, Glasnow’s skill set impressed scouts and prospect analysts, and before the 2016 season he was named the no. 11 global prospect in the Baseball Prospectus top 101. BP’s Chris Crawford praised Glasnow’s fastball and curveball, and wrote that winter: “If Glasnow can throw quality strikes more consistently he’s a future ace, as his ability to miss bats is as good as any pitching prospect’s you’ll see. If he can’t, he’ll still miss a lot of bats, but will frustrate with self-inflicted damage.”
If you saw Glasnow pitch for the Pirates, or if you saw his numbers, or even if you just happened to be near PNC Park one evening and had to dodge an errant baseball while walking down the road, you know Glasnow struggled with self-inflicted damage.
Rock bottom came in 2017, when Glasnow threw 62 innings in the majors and allowed a 7.69 ERA. His underlying numbers were even worse: Glasnow’s deserved run average (DRA) was 8.17, fourth-worst in the majors out of the 355 pitchers who threw at least 50 MLB innings that year. He allowed almost two home runs per nine innings, and he walked 14.4 percent of the batters he faced. It’s possible to be an effective reliever with a walk rate that high—though the precedent is Carlos Marmol, so it’s worth noting that “effective” is not the same as “totally trustworthy”—but no top-end starter can get away with that walk rate. In fact, in the 21st century, no pitcher with a walk rate that high has lasted long enough in the big leagues to qualify for the ERA title in that season.
Glasnow says that even at his low point in 2017, he never dreaded going to the ballpark. But even so, he says he had a hard time feeling comfortable in the big leagues as a young pitcher.
“It’s easy to feel pretty uncomfortable and you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes and it’s really hard to, I guess, be yourself,” he says. “It’s not anyone else’s fault. I think, for me in ‘17, I just did that on my own. A lot of guys come up to the big leagues and feel like they can’t really be themselves.”
Glasnow is just the latest in a line of talented Pirates pitchers to flourish after leaving Pittsburgh, including Morton and Cole, who finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting in 2015 but failed to reach those heights again until he was traded to Houston and junked his sinker. But Glasnow hasn’t changed his style or repertoire as much as Cole did after joining the Astros. He says some of the adjustments he’s made, like speeding up his delivery to control the running game and keep his spider crab–like limbs under control, he first tried before leaving the Pirates.
“He’s probably pitched up in the zone a little more in his handful of outings here than he has in the past,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder told David Laurila of FanGraphs last August, about a month after the trade. “That’s something he wanted to do, and he’d already been exploring it. That lined up with any thoughts we might have had an on approach adjustment, and everything has kind of gelled from there. Really, a lot of what we’ve delivered to him are things he’d already thought about and was working on.”
Glasnow says the change in mind-set that helped spur the breakthrough—thinking more during his preparation and less during his actual start—is actually something the Pirates had encouraged him to do, but it only clicked recently.
“I could never really get into it,” he says. “I was always convincing myself that it was probably something physical.” His struggles in 2017 and 2018 have also taught him to deal with failure better.
“Just because you did badly as a baseball player, doesn’t mean you need to be bad as a human,” Glasnow says. “You can still wake up and do what you got to do and still have a good day, even if you didn’t do well on the baseball field. That’s something that I’m just happy that I learned in ‘17. Failing that much, that’s probably one of the biggest takeaways. I don’t really base my value off of how I do as a baseball player.”
Now, Glasnow, under Snyder’s tutelage, is exerting his mental energy on refining his craft between starts, instead of overthinking his actions on the mound. But Glasnow isn’t a testament to the power of positive thinking, or trusting one’s instincts, or anything that trite.
“I’ve always gravitated more towards the analytical numbers side of things,” Glasnow says. “My family’s like that, I guess. I thought of baseball the same way for so long and then, this came along and it really opened up another door for me … You can see dudes like [Trevor] Bauer go in the offseason and come back with a new pitch every year. That has to do with a lot of Edgertronic [high-speed cameras] and seeing how you’re spinning it.”
But not only does Glasnow find technology interesting from a scientific or intellectual perspective, it’s played a huge role in solving his own problems on the mound. After a bad outing, Glasnow and Snyder can look at the data and high-speed camera footage to find the problem, diagnose its cause, and fix it quickly and definitively.
“You can achieve peace of mind sooner than I think you would’ve been able to achieve it before,” Glasnow says. “It just allows you to see it on paper, write down what you need to adjust, stop thinking about it, and just take care of it the next day.”
Between starts, Glasnow pores over data and video with Snyder, but when he takes the mound, Glasnow puts away what he calls his “preparation mentality” and pulls on his “competition mentality,” like Clark Kent swapping his glasses and tie for red briefs and a cape. On game day, he says, he transforms from “happy-go-lucky” to “psycho.”
“The day I pitch, from the second I wake up, I have to convince myself I’m an asshole,” he says. “So it’s definitely a switch in mind-set. I think, if I’m in that angry mind-set and I can somehow convince myself that the hitter is trying to hurt me, I can throw a lot better.”
After struggling to find the plate in Pittsburgh, Glasnow has walked just 5.1 percent of the batters he’s faced this year, with no hit batters and no wild pitches. And he’s improved his command and control radically without sacrificing his stuff in the slightest. Glasnow throws in the upper 90s, but because his long arms allow him to release the ball closer to home plate, his fastball looks even faster. He says hitters have told him it’s like he’s just reaching out and placing the ball in the catcher’s glove. He still has a curveball that … well it calls to mind that line from The Hunt for Red October: “In air like this the rotors will be putting out enough static electricity to light up Chicago.”
Tyler Glasnow, Soul Stealing 82mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/pZ5pVKFBIP— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 17, 2019
Before, Glasnow had so much trouble throwing strikes that none of the other stuff mattered. Now, he’s not only getting the ball over the plate, but spotting his upper-90s fastball to the corner of the zone. Sometimes he’ll still bounce a curveball or sail a four-seamer, but hitters know now that they can’t just sit back and wait for a walk. When hitters chase Glasnow’s stuff out of the zone, they’re making contact just 38.6 percent of the time, the lowest rate out of 87 pitchers who are on pace to qualify for the ERA title. And he’s still got room to improve.
“At this point in my career, I’m definitely an out-stuff-you guy,” he says. “But I definitely have an idea of where to throw guys and guys’ weaknesses and holes and stuff. But for the most part, I’m going off of my strengths, as opposed to their weaknesses. That might need to be an adjustment [I make] later down the road, but right now, my stuff-first mentality has really been helping me.”
Through his first five starts, Glasnow worked with his fastball and curveball—the pitches that got him to the big leagues—almost exclusively. Conventional wisdom says a starting pitcher needs three workable pitches in order to keep hitters off-balance multiple times through the order. Even though the Rays are less dogmatic about starters working deep into games than any team in the league, Glasnow has faced at least 20 hitters every time out this year.
In his sixth start, a 5-2 win over Boston in Fenway Park, Glasnow threw nine changeups, doubling his total for the season. He says the changeup is still a work in progress, but he knew he needed to show Red Sox hitters something different after facing them a week before. On those nine changeups, Red Sox hitters swung four times for two misses and two ground-ball outs. Going forward, opponents will have to account for a second off-speed pitch.
Glasnow is definitely a stuff-first pitcher, but with the Rays, the rest of the package is falling into place.