With the exits of Charlie Morton and Blake Snell from the Rays rotation this offseason, and with Michael Wacha as the lone incoming starter at the moment, there is suddenly a lot more pressure on Tyler Glasnow to deliver on the promise he has flashed at times during his Rays career.
In 173.2 innings with the Rays, Glasnow has certainly looked up to the task of “Top of the Rotation” arm. His 3.32 ERA and 3.40 FIP would rank right around 16th in baseball over the past three years had he thrown enough innings to qualify.
So, in one sense, the Rays should just hope Glasnow stays healthy and continues to perform at the same level. On the other hand, there’s something about players like Glasnow—players that flash such ridiculously high ceilings that they get headlines like this and perpetually make fans want to tinker away to reach that mythical potential.
And in the world of baseball, there’s almost no more mythical offseason story than “The New Pitch”. As Ben Lindbergh wrote for Grantland in 2015, in a piece that will be used throughout this article:
A close cousin of the mechanical adjustment is the New Pitch, the most tangible of all potential tweaks. It registers on radar guns. It’s visible on video. It’s the closest baseball players come to leveling up and unlocking a new ability that lets them beat the next boss.
This potential to level up is especially relevant for a pitcher like Tyler Glasnow, who was one of just four pitchers in 2020 to rely on just two pitches over 95 percent of the time (min. 50 IP). Glasnow can clearly be successful with what he’s got, but with only two pitches currently in use, that possible next level will always feel within reach.
Queue the Herald Tribune piece from last week, which had some direct quotes from Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder on Glasnow’s offseason plan:
Snyder said Glasnow is working out in California and wants to add another pitch to his repertoire. “If we’re able to land a 93-mph cutter and to increase the change-up, it’s just going to force the hitters’ hands that much more. I’m anxious to see what he’s capable of with a full, healthy season.”
Excuse me? TWO ‘NEW’ PITCHES!
The cutter would definitely be something new, but a close follower of Glasnow might realize that the changeup isn’t technically new. The change was a pitch he used 4.7 percent of the time last season, but it’s also a pitch he’s never nailed down in terms of its grip.
When he came to the Rays in 2018, Glasnow’s change was a decidedly vulcan grip. In 2019 he’d considered it more of a two-seam circle change, and by 2020 he was considering a split-change approach. All are similar in approach, and all have alluded him in terms of effectiveness. It’s not clear which grip focus he’ll carry into 2021.
Going back to Lindbergh’s article from above, cutters are actually the most commonly added new pitch, but it would be an interesting choice for Glasnow, given what our own Danny Russell wrote about Glasnow a few years back:
Glasnow’s grip is decidedly a traditional four-seam, his large hands are on all four seams in any photo or broadcast slo-mo, but put in action and you get viral strikeouts with a high-90’s occasionally cutting fastball
Glasnow told Russell that sometimes the movement was due to his massive hands, so in theory, this wouldn’t be a hard pitch to fold in to the repertoire. Good pitchers are constantly adapting their game
So, is it worth it for Glasnow to start tinkering?
What was left out in our discussion earlier about where Glasnow ranks among his peers is that they have all thrown wayyyyy more innings than him over the past three years. Part of that is due to Glasnow just getting a chance full-time once he came to the Rays, but another large part of that has been niggling health concerns.
In fact, part of the reason Glasnow relied so heavily on the fastball-curveball duopoly was that the changeup had previously landed him on the IL.
As Juan Toribio wrote for MLB last spring (ironically, in an article centered around Glasnow playing around with a splitter):
“[The changeup] was a pitch I kind of featured, and I just kind of started throwing it during throwing programs and I was like, ‘Whatever, I guess I’ll throw it in a game,’ and it felt amazing,” Glasnow said. “But when I looked back at video, I was kind of dropping down a little bit … and that’s like a big no-no.”
The effectiveness of the pitch, however, wasn’t the issue for him. Due to some mechanical issues, Glasnow began to feel some discomfort when throwing the pitch, and he landed on the 60-day injured list on May 11 with a mild right forearm strain.
According to Brooks Baseball, Glasnow has thrown the changeup just 288 times in his career (out of about 5500 total MLB pitches), with a .289 batting average and .511 slugging percentage allowed. Both those figures are noticeably worse than either his fastball (.251/.449) or curveball (.171/.313). And remember, Glasnow believes the changeup was the reason for his IL stint.
To quote Lindbergh once again:
Throwing pitches is the point of the profession, so when a pitcher adds a new type to his collection, it’s worth paying attention. But the flops should also inform our expectations
And while it’s too early to judge Glasnow’s addition of a cutter (Brooks doesn’t even have one official cutter in their database for Tyler), or a more than five-percent-used changeup, or even the splitter that was thrown into the ring last offseason, it’s worth asking what the reward might be.
The main chart in Lindbergh’s piece from 2015 studied pitchers who added a new pitch and then broke the results they had against their projections. The data showed that pitchers who added a new pitch gained more than half a win over their projected Baseball Prospectus value (through TAv), with that number being even higher for pitchers who added hard pitches, not soft pitches, and even greater still for pitchers who used that new pitch at least 10 percent of the time.
Now, there’s a fair amount of survival bias there, but Lindbergh did well to check his findings for potential false positives, such as starters becoming relievers, and seeing if this same sample group was off from their projections in the previous year (the projections were basically identical for their previous years, via BP). That half-a-win improvement appears real for that data set.
As for whether what Glasnow is working on will stick, that remains to be seen. His four-seam fastball already picks up natural gloveside movement? can he find a grip that creates an even greater cut? It will be interesting to see what Snyder and Glasnow might be able to unlock or find.