Friday, March 25, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #25: Tom Glavine

The crafty lefty is one of many notable archetypes from the world of baseball. Not as famous or well-regarded as the slugger, the speed merchant, or the flamethrower, the crafty lefty is a pitcher (left-handed, of course) who doesn't seem to have the same tremendous physical gifts some possess, who doesn't have a fastball that lights up the radar gun, but who somehow still gets a lot of guys out, presumably with a mixture of wits, wiles, and voodoo magic. According to the popular view, a crafty lefty doesn't have as much talent as most other pitchers, but on the right day, or even for the right season, a crafty lefty can become the most frustrating pitcher in the world to face. If the crafty lefty puts things together like that just not upon occasion, or for a good year or two, but is instead able to do it over and over again for two mostly uninterrupted decades of success, were they really a crafty lefty?

If so, Tom Glavine was arguably the greatest crafty lefty in baseball history.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.
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Tom Glavine did not throw the ball hard. (I mean, he threw a hell of a lot harder than me or you, but not Major League hard.) PITCHf/x data for velocity doesn't exist for most of Glavine's seasons, but at the end of his career we know he was only averaging 84-85 MPH on his fastball. I assume it was a bit higher than that in his prime, but likely not above 90 MPH or so. He didn't have a devastating curveball or slider either. He threw that slowish fastball and a good changeup, and mixed in other pitches occasionally, but none of his pitches was something to write home about.

As would be expected for a pitcher who didn't throw especially hard or have any dynamite off-speed pitches, Glavine did not strike a lot of guys out. He never finished in the National League's top ten for strikeout rate, and he was below average in that category for all but three (1991, 1994, and 1996) of his twenty full seasons. His career strikeout rate of 5.32 per 9 innings ranks him 191st among the 238 pitchers with 1000+ innings pitched during the time he played. When you focus on only the better pitchers in the game, Glavine position (as a strikeout pitcher) is even more dramatic. Of the 65 pitchers who posted 30+ WAR (Baseball-Reference version) during the last 30 years, Glavine's strikeout rate ranks 63rd.

The immediate assumption about a successful pitcher who struck so few batters out would be that he must also have walked very few batters. Glavine though, had a fairly undistinguished walk rate. He didn't walk a lot of guys, but he didn't walk especially few either. Of those 238 pitchers I mentioned above, Glavine's walk rate of 3.06 per 9 innings places him 115th, just barely above the median.

Those of you well-versed in the idea of defense independent pitching statistics (DIPS) know that strikeouts and walks are two of the three things a pitcher has much control over. The third thing is not letting the ball get hit so far it goes over the wall for a home run, and it is here that we find something Glavine did very, very well. Going back to those 238 pitchers, Glavine's home run rate of 0.73 per 9 innings ranks 21st.

Glavine's placement on all of these lists is hurt somewhat by him having played for so long. If we look at only his prime years (which I'm considering to be 1991 to 2002, a very long prime), Glavine's home run rate is just 0.64 per 9 innings, which ranks 3rd among 113 pitchers with 1000+ innings during those seasons. Glavine gave up far fewer doubles and triples than the average pitcher as well, and so by metrics such as slugging percentage, isolated power, and extra-base hits per inning pitched, he was excellent.

Digging around in the sandbox that is Glavine's career numbers, one of the most interesting things I found was his results when the bases were loaded. Glavine had a total of 428 such encounters during his big league career. In those 428 plate appearances, batters hit just .251/.273/.315. The .589 OPS players managed against Glavine with the bases loaded would rank as the absolute worst among the hundreds of batters during the last 30 years I'm looking at for this project (min. 3000 PA). His .315 slugging percentage allowed with the bases loaded is the lowest among the 50 pitchers who faced a bases loaded situation the most times during that time.

Even more incredibly, in those 428 bases loaded encounters, Glavine allowed only two grand slams. There are 122 pitchers who faced a batter with the bases loaded 150 times or more during the last 30 years, and not one of them had a lower home run rate in that situation than Glavine.

That factoid does a nice job of encapsulating who Glavine was as a pitcher. He didn't have electric stuff, but he was fantastic at locating the stuff he did have in places that made it difficult to do much with. Most that meant low and away, low and away, low and away.

Allow me to go back to DIPS for a moment. If you're not already familiar, the idea is that while pitchers can control their strikeouts, walks, and home runs, they have very little control over what happens when batters make contact but don't hit the ball out of the park. Sometimes the ball will be hit very hard, but right at a defender, for an out. Sometimes the ball will be hit very weakly, but slowly sneak its way between defenders (a play known by the same name as this blog).

FIP is a metric that uses only those three things (strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed) to rate a pitcher. It's on a scale meant to match ERA, and single-season FIP has better predictive value for future ERA than actual ERA does. If a pitcher has an ERA much lower than his FIP, the idea is that he's been a bit lucky. Pitchers will have some "lucky" years, and some unlucky ones, but over the course of their career, things will tend to even out. Not for Tom Glavine though. His career FIP was 3.95. His career ERA was 3.54.

There are 285 starting pitchers with 1000+ innings during the three decades I've been a baseball fan. Only 8 of them have a career ERA at least 10% lower than their career FIP. Not one of the other seven pitched within 2000 as many innings as Glavine. Most pitchers can't consistently generate enough weak contact to overpower the randomness of balls in play. Tom Glavine did it though.

Crafty lefty indeed.

Plenty talented too though, and athletics. Glavine was not only a good enough pitcher to be take with the 47th pick of the 1984 draft, he was also a good enough hockey player to be chosen with the 69th pick of the NHL draft that same year, ahead of future Hall of Famers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. Few people in history have been good enough at two different sports to be so sought after.

As pitchers go, Glavine was pretty decent at the plate as well, with a career on-base percentage of .244, which ranks 4th among the 74 pitchers with 500+ plate appearances during the last three decades. His 90 RBI are tops among all pitchers during that time, and his 216 successful sacrifice bunts are the most by any pitcher in history.

Glavine also did very well in the postseason. His 218.1 postseason innings are second-most in MLB history, and his 3.30 ERA in those innings, even better than his regular season figure. Those innings came in 35 starts, 19 of which included Glavine allowing two runs or fewer. He was especially good in the World Series, where he had a 2.16 ERA in eight starts, six of which featured two runs or fewer allowed. He pitched eight shutout frames in Game 6 of the '95 World Series, as the Braves won their lone World Series during their incredible run of division titles.

His strongest attributes are not the ones most people tend to think of first when they think of great players, but make no mistake, Tom Glavine was a great player.

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