The Greatness of Tom Glavine

Every career in the history of baseball, every life that’s ever been lived — they all could’ve turned out differently, unrecognizably differently, given one little change along the way. Sometimes, you have to search for what those changes could’ve been. Other times, they flash in blinding neon. Tom Glavine was born in 1966. In June of 1984, he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves. In June of 1984, he was also drafted by the Los Angeles Kings. The Braves chose him 47th, while the Kings chose him 69th, ahead of some future superstars. There was the opportunity for Glavine to play hockey and go to college for free. He chose, with some difficulty, to go where baseball might lead him. On this day, he’s become all but an official Hall-of-Famer.

Frank Thomas is going into the Hall of Fame. The talent of Frank Thomas was obvious from the beginning. Thomas left no doubt in any observer’s mind that he was one of the best hitters there ever was. Greg Maddux is going into the Hall of Fame. Maddux had plenty of talent, and also the dedication to maximize it. Maddux required a bit of a longer look, but it was immediately apparent he could do things with the baseball others just couldn’t. Tom Glavine is going into the Hall of Fame. Glavine didn’t have Thomas’ gilded skillset, and he didn’t have Maddux’s ability to miss bats and hit gnats. Glavine’s greatest strength was getting something extraordinary out of considerably duller parts.

What was the story with Tom Glavine? This place is called FanGraphs, but we only infrequently call upon the graphs that’ve been there from the start. This seems like as good a chance as any. Given: Tom Glavine is getting voted into the Hall of Fame. Now, here’s how Glavine’s strikeouts compared to the league average over his career:

Here’s how Glavine’s walks compared to the league average over his career:

So, here’s how Glavine’s K/BB ratios compared to the league average over his career:

Nothing in there is terrible, but at the same time, nothing in there shrieks and cries “greatness”. Glavine wound up with a more or less average ratio of strikeouts to walks. He threw a slightly below-average rate of strikes, he threw a below-average rate of first-pitch strikes, and he allowed a higher-than-average rate of contact. Look at many of his numbers, and you’d figure that Glavine was a guy who was just good enough to hang around for long enough to stick in people’s memories. He was most certainly durable, and teams have always been suckers for durable lefties.

But there are other numbers. Here’s how Glavine’s homers compared to the league average over his career:

Here’s how Glavine’s stranded runners compared to the league average over his career:

Here’s how Glavine’s BABIPs compared to the league average over his career:

So, here’s how Glavine’s ERAs compared to the league average over his career:

Glavine finished with well over 4,000 innings, all as a starter, and his run prevention was 14% better than average, which is another way of saying he had an 86 ERA-. Between 1991 and 2006, he had two years in which his ERA started with a four. That same span saw him start 530 games, plus extra time in the playoffs. Glavine allowed a good but unremarkable career batting average. He was much better in the area of slugging percentage, particularly when there were runners on base. What Glavine did, basically, was make an entire career out of beating his own peripherals.

Which is how he finished with a WAR of 64, but an RA9-WAR of 88. Leo Mazzone referred to Glavine as a modern-day Whitey Ford. Ford finished with a WAR of 55, but an RA9-WAR of 81. Fans today are always looking for pitchers who might be capable of sustainably beating their own indicators. Most of the time, there’s nothing there. Glavine did it for two decades. He did it by genuinely inducing worse contact, and he did it by genuinely changing his game in certain situations.

How did Glavine do it, after a somewhat shaky start to his career? Because he started so long ago, we can’t perform our usual analysis. Based on this picture, and then this one, it seems like Glavine might’ve raised his arm angle as he got older. He discovered his trademark changeup more or less by accident, and then that became his primary offspeed pitch since he never really trusted either of his breaking balls. He was a lefty who threw from the third-base side of the rubber, unlike most lefties, and that gave him a bit of an edge against right-handed bats. And there were the stories about his strike zone. In the long era before PITCHf/x, Glavine was a guy who made us all pine for something like PITCHf/x.

People used to claim that Glavine would get strikes 6-8 inches off the plate outside. And I’m not referring to lefty strikes, either, as we currently understand them, since Glavine faced relatively few left-handed hitters. The glimpses of late-career data we do have suggest that Glavine lived low and away against righties, and low and away against lefties. The thing is that he did that consistently. With his fastballs and his changeup, Glavine routinely attacked the same areas, allowing his catchers to expand the zone. And though Glavine never posted exceptional walk rates, that shouldn’t be confused for mediocre command. What Glavine was able to do was center the baseball in the catcher’s glove. And if that catcher were set up at or beyond the edge of the strike zone, sometimes that would mean balls, but that would also mean called strikes or strikes that hitters would struggle to drive. Glavine lived his career on the edge, in more ways than one, and he was good enough to not waver. He refused to come over the middle, and his results speak for themselves.

Interestingly, with no one on base, Glavine averaged about five strikeouts per two walks, and he allowed a .128 ISO. With runners in scoring position, he averaged barely 1.2 strikeouts per one unintentional walk, and he allowed a .104 ISO. Glavine was even more extreme about the edges when hits could hurt him, conceivably allowing him to strand more runners. Throw in his quality defense and his ability to suppress the running game, and it becomes apparent how Glavine was able to achieve all that he did. In theory, the model works. Few are able to perform up to the theory, but Glavine did it.

In 1999, there was talk that a smaller strike zone league-wide was really hurting Glavine and pitchers of his sort. Nevermind that that was Glavine’s age-33 season. From that point forward, he had seven more years of a sub-100 ERA-, and six of those were sub-90. Two were sub-80. Glavine was bad at the end, when he went on the disabled list for the first time, but he was also 42. Glavine pitched on both sides of the steroid era, and he thrived in between.

It’s worth noting that, if Tom Glavine belongs in the Hall of Fame, the same goes for Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling. Glavine pitched longer, but Mussina and Schilling posted numbers that were more striking, and extra credit shouldn’t be given for a greater number of only half-decent innings. Glavine didn’t struggle for this position, either, going in on the first ballot. Given that precedent, there should be no question regarding the other two. But that’s something for another day.

For this day, it’s about Tom Glavine. A lot of players in the Hall of Fame were able to become Hall of Famers because they possessed Hall of Fame level raw talent. Big giant fastballs or big giant curveballs or big giant arms that swung big giant bats. Tom Glavine’s going in with a fastball that spent the bulk of his career at or below 90 miles per hour. Yet, don’t make the mistake of asserting Glavine wasn’t unusually gifted. He was gifted, in a different way — he was able to work hard enough, long enough, to do what he did with what he had. He’s the kind of player who makes people believe they could be ultra-successful if they just gave more, if they just dedicated themselves completely. But most people can’t do that. Glavine could. That was his gift. And now he’s receiving the honor he earned.

Tom Glavine was one of the best while seldom really looking like it. That’s not an easy thing to be for a year. That’s not an easy thing to be for 20 of them.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

Sullivan-Cameron: The Glavine-Maddux of baseball analysis.

9 years ago
Reply to  Compton

I think the former two names should be reversed.

Oh, Beepy.
9 years ago
Reply to  triple_r

Not even close.

9 years ago
Reply to  Oh, Beepy.

Probably more apt to say Cameron-Tom Tango-James are the Glavine-Smoltz-Maddux of baseball analytics.