Small Adjustments and Glenn Sparkman

This is an unusually sunny era in which to write about player development. Seemingly every other month, someone new finds their power stroke, optimizes their curveball, or writes a best-selling book about how players are embracing technology to improve. I don’t know if any one player embodies the face of the movement, if only because so many people have jump-started their careers with a swing change or weighted ball program.

It’s easy to forget that these kind of career-altering breakthroughs are still somewhat uncommon. Ballplayers are constantly tinkering — a new grip or arm slot here, a different stance or hand position there — and the vast majority of those developments will never break a projection system. Sometimes, they’re just meant to get a struggling player back on track. In many other cases, guys make changes that give them an edge, albeit a fleeting one. These adjustments generally don’t make headlines, but under the microscope, they offer a fascinating window into the game.

Consider the case of Glenn Sparkman. Sparkman, a 27-year-old clinging to a job in Kansas City’s rotation, is the kind of guy who constantly needs to be at the top of his game to succeed. He’s a righty with slightly above average arm strength; his secondaries are competent but unremarkable. His stats are as bland as the previous sentence:

Glenn Sparkman’s Career Numbers
Year Games Innings SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA- FIP-
2018 15 38.1 6.34 3.52 0.7 47% 103 97
2019 19 79 4.9 2.28 1.82 38.50% 100 125

Those 2019 numbers actually looked a bit worse heading into his final start before the All-Star break. At that point, his ERA was above five and he was fanning less than a batter every two innings. As you might infer from the shaky peripherals, he struggled to miss bats: None of his primary weapons — fastball, change, curve — had registered even a 10% whiff rate. Just as troubling, he couldn’t coax even same-sided hitters out of the zone, as his only breaking ball was a low-spin curve that doesn’t have the gas to entice bad swings.

On July 6 against Washington, Sparkman dusted off something old. He’d worked with a slider earlier in his career but, per Brooks Baseball, had only thrown eight all year up to that point in 2019. Truth be told, his slider doesn’t look terribly dissimilar to his curve, just thrown three or four ticks harder and with tighter action. Still, leaning on it for the first time in 2019, he missed seven bats — good for a 21% whiff rate on the game, and tied for the most swings and misses he’s enticed with any pitch in any game all year. 

He wasn’t done. In his first start after the break, Sparkman turned in the best performance of his career, shutting out the White Sox with a career high eight strikeouts. Again, the slider was key to his success. He threw it 33 times and notched 10 whiffs. At its best, the pitch’s late action had batters swinging over the ball as it disappeared below the zone.

Do we have a breakout here? Perhaps — those extra whiffs certainly count for something. He’s used a slider effectively in the past, which raises questions about why he shelved it for so long, but also suggests that it’s an offering he’s somewhat comfortable with.

Still, it’s far too early to say how much it helps Sparkman, and a look at his next outing helps explain why. In that game, Sparkman again leaned on the slider, throwing it 30 times. Unlike Washington and Chicago, Cleveland was ready. Terry Francona loaded his lineup with seven lefties and the Indians were patient when he tried to expand the zone south. The slider is a tough pitch to execute in the zone when you don’t have the platoon advantage, and sure enough, Sparkman couldn’t get anyone to bite. He missed just one bat with the slider, and hitters went 3-5 with a couple homers when they made contact on it.

To ponder too much on whether all of this has changed Sparkman’s long-term outlook is to miss the fun. No matter how many batters swing over his slider, it’s hard to imagine him turning into anything more than a reliable arm in the bullpen or at the back end of a rotation. Here, the chase is more fun than the catch: even if Sparkman is a journeyman, his journey is still interesting. He struggled, then made a change and succeeded, only to see Cleveland catch on and beat him at his new game. The Tribe will be in town for his next start this weekend, and he’ll need to have a better answer for their approach than he had on Sunday. Know all this, and Saturday’s matchup becomes all the more compelling; suddenly, there’s a hook for Kansas City’s 106th game in a forgettable season.

These small developments, the games within the game, give baseball it’s comforting rhythm. For all that’s new and disorienting in our current era, the timeless nature of baseball as a game of adjustments is alive and well. The ongoing tango between Sparkman and his opponents illustrates the point, and reminds us all that the battle to get ahead is a dance that never stops.

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Jared Struchtemeyer
Jared Struchtemeyer

Nope, just a couple good games.