Anatomy of a player: Tom Glavine

Tom Glavine is a certain Hall of Famer who notched his 300th career victory this year, his 20th in the majors. Glavine started his career with the Braves, winning two Cy Young awards, and signed a free agent deal with the Mets in 2003. Now, at the age of 41, Glavine on Monday signed to go back to the Braves as a free agent.

What is Glavine doing that is still befuddling batters? What are his prospects for the future? Let’s look.

These days, Glavine is a three-pitch pitcher—fastball, change and slider. Glavine is the classic crafty left hander with a fastball that usually is in the mid-80s. If you are having trouble denting bread with your fastball, then you must have something else up your sleeve to keep hitters from teeing off. For Glavine, it is his changeup, which he throws in the high 70s.

While changeup probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Glavine, this pitch has become his bread and butter. It doesn’t have the large speed differential you see in other pitchers who have a dominating change, like Johan Santana, but he hides it remarkably well. Here is a plot of the break of Glavine’s pitches and you will see what I mean.

This plot isn’t the final location of the ball; it is the movement of the pitch compared to a pitch thrown without spin. Also, negative x values mean the ball is breaking in toward a right-handed batter. Now you can see the beauty of the Glavine change. It has exactly the same movement as his fastball does; the only difference is in the speed of the pitch. No other pitcher has a change so similar to his fastball. Because of the smaller speed differential, Glavine’s change is going to produce more weak balls in play than strikeouts at this point, but he still can be effective with it. This is borne out in the counts in which he uses it.

Glavine is a nibbler on the mound. Early in the at-bat he is going to aim for the very edge of the corner of the plate. If the batter swings, he probably isn’t swinging at a very good pitch. If the batter takes the pitch, Glavine still might get the call from the umpire.

That said, this strategy causes Glavine to fall behind many batters. This spells doom for most pitchers who promptly throw a fastball down the middle, which gets hammered. Glavine doesn’t give in. On 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 counts Glavine threw 76 changes while PITCHf/x was tracking. During those same counts, Glavine threw only 69 fastballs! He may throw you something that gets more of the plate, but with such a high percentage of changeups, batters who sit dead red are playing right into Glavine’s hands. Compare those numbers with those of Santana, who threw 73 fastballs and 13 changeups on those hitter’s counts.

So you might go back to the plot and think that Glavine then must be using his slider as his strikeout pitch. Again, Glavine surprises: He is most likely to throw the slider in the first pitch of the at-bat. It looks like he might be using that as a get-me-over pitch to get ahead of certain batters or something to throw against especially aggressive batters to get them to chase. Glavine is throwing a lot of changeups on pitcher’s counts, but is also is throwing a pretty high percentage of fastballs. Again, this all fits into the Glavine M.O.

The location of Glavine’s pitches is more of the same. Very little in the middle of the plate and very little up in the zone. Here is a plot of the location of every Glavine fastball.

This plot now is the final location of the ball when it crosses home plate. Again, negative x is toward a right-handed batter. You can see Glavine really working the corners here.

Despite all this guile, Glavine showed some signs of aging last year. Glavine posted one of his lowest strikeout totals of his career, getting slightly over four strikeouts per game. His walk rate stayed pretty much the same, but his groundball rate plummeted to under 42% as did his infield fly ball percentage. This increased his FIP to 4.86. The strong Mets defense kept his ERA at 4.45, but going forward Glavine will be counting on his defense more and more.

When he hangs up his spikes for good, baseball will be losing one of the greats of the game. By finding his own niche, Glavine has produced great results during his career, and baseball could use more pitchers who think and game-plan as effectively as Glavine.

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