By: Mark Barry
Numbers are good. Numbers are fantastic. Numbers can paint a great picture about a player and his potential for the future. Sometimes, however, you just need to see it for yourself. Because I’m a terrible baseball fan, I hadn’t yet been to the beautiful Victory Field in Indianapolis this season, despite the Pirates’ Triple A squad being the home of some promising talent. Last Sunday, I righted that wrong. I did so in order to see the Pirates’ top prospect Tyler Glasnow. Spoiler alert: he’s good.
One of the benefits of pitching at the Triple A level is for prospects to test their mettle and hone their repertoire against both young guys on the cusp of call-ups and veteran “AAAA” players wearing out the path between the minors and big leagues. Glasnow‘s opponents, the Norfolk Tides, were no exception. The Tides’ (Triple A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles) lineup featured a couple interesting prospects, Christian Walker and Trey Mancini, as well as journeyman veterans with major league experience, like Ryan Flaherty, LJ Hoes and Henry Urrutia. In other words, they had a strikingly similar makeup to the 2016 Atlanta Braves.
My expectations heading into the game were high, yet tempered. To this point in his career, the Pirates had been very careful in their handling of Glasnow. Pittsburgh selected the lanky righty as a project in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, spending $600,000 in the process. At the time of the selection, it was the most the organization had spent on a pick outside of the first two rounds. The investment seemed like a bargain almost immediately. In Glasnow’s first year as a pro, he tossed 34.1 sparkling innings, spread across Rookie League and Low A. Sure it was the lowest level of competition, but an 18-year-old Glasnow was impressive, striking out over 10 batters per nine innings while posting an ERA under two.
Glasnow’s slow and steady rise through Pittsburgh’s organization garnered plenty of industry interest, but his stellar 2014 of 157 strikeouts in 124.1 High A innings solidified him as a consensus top 20 prospect. If 2014 shot him up lists, 2015 solidified Glasnow as a “can’t miss” guy (well, as can’t miss as pitchers can be… let’s not think about it.). Instead of continuing the one-level-per-season track that the Pirates had kept him on, Glasnow spread is 2015 across three levels, dominating at each stop. In total, he tossed over 109 innings in 2015, striking out over 11 batters per inning with a FIP under 3.00.
Sunday’s start was actually a pretty good facsimile of Glasnow’s minor league career. With an easy, repeatable delivery, his fastball topped out at 96 mph, and sat in the 92-94 mph range. He showed glimpses of a change that hovered around 89-90 mph, but the real put away pitch was his curve. Coming in anywhere from 76-81 mph, the majority of embarrassing swings (and there were plenty) came from Uncle Charlie. His pure stuff stymied the Norfolk bats, but walks capped the ceiling of his performance. For most of the afternoon, Glasnow’s stuff was untouchable.
The knock on Glasnow has always been control and his propensity to put runners on with free passes. He’s always walked a few too many guys, posting a career rate of 4.2 walks per nine innings. For context, Trevor Bauer was the only qualified starter in the big leagues last year that walked over four guys per nine innings (4.04). While the walks are discouraging, the glass half full optimist would point to the fact that Glasnow still doesn’t allow more baserunners than normal, since his filthy mix doesn’t cede many hits. Even while walking pretty much everyone, he has still put up a career 1.063 WHIP. This is an issue that will need to be addressed for Glasnow to reach his full major league potential, but he’s on his way.
After a 25 pitch, two walk first inning, it became pretty evident that Glasnow probably wouldn’t see the sixth inning. Approaching 90 pitches for the afternoon, the focus became whether he could end his day without giving up a hit. So, yeah, I guess that’s burying the lead a little…no hits into the fifth inning. Glasnow got two quick outs before a Xavier Avery single ended his bid for a truncated (and ultimately meaningless, but whatever) no-hitter. LJ Hoes followed up with his own single, and all of a sudden Glasnow found himself in a jam. He walked Ryan Flaherty, and with the 2-2 curve and 3-2 heater barely missing the zone, Glasnow was visibly frustrated (I don’t blame him. I think both pitches were probably strikes.).
Sensing that the young phenom unraveling, Indians’ pitching coach Stan Kyles made his way to the mound. After barking what I’m sure were several glowing endorsements for the home plate umpire’s strike zone, Kyles left the 6’8” hurler in to finish the inning. What followed can best be described as an obscene 76 mph curveball to Walker, accompanied by a swing that my high school coach would say “needed a band-aid” (because it was a bad cut, get it? Hilarious.). Two 93 mph fastballs later, Glasnow was out of the inning with his seventh strikeout of the day. The final line: five innings, two hits, seven strikeouts, five walks and zero runs.
Glasnow is still only 22 years old, so the Pirates can afford to take their time with his development. That said, if he can find a way to manage the walks, or at least continue to have success giving up fewer hits, he could find himself entrenched in the Pittsburgh rotation as early as this summer. He’s going to a team with pitching wizard Ray Searage, a guy that turned JA Happ into a good pitcher. That can’t hurt.
Oh, and here’s a GIF of that curve striking out Urrutia, just because.