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The dizzying intellect of Tom Glavine

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Articles about new Hall of Famers probably should not begin with personal stories, but back in 1991, when I was 24 years old, I found myself panicked in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. Every sportswriter, I suspect, has a story about their first time in a professional clubhouse or locker room. That’s a scary place for a rookie writer. The clubhouse is a place where a writer is allowed but not necessarily welcome, a place where a writer is grudgingly allowed to observe (up to a point), but it is made perfectly clear that the writer does not belong.

Anyway, I was standing there, trying to figure out what to do, and I can only imagine how out of place I looked. The Braves had caught us all by surprise. Back then I worked at The Augusta Chronicle, 120 or so miles away, and the one thing that seemed sure was that I would not be writing any baseball. The Braves had lost 97 games the year before, 97 the year before that and 106 the years before that. It was during that stretch that an Atlanta newspaper asked readers to send in catchy Braves slogans, and one of those readers earned eternal fame by coining: “Atlanta Braves baseball: Better than getting hit in the head with a hammer, unless it’s a doubleheader.”

The 1991 Braves were a .500 team on July 4, a mildly surprising but generally uninteresting fact, and they plodded along for a little longer, and a little longer, and in early August they were 10 games over .500. On Aug. 27 they moved into a first-place tie with the Dodgers. I cannot even begin to relate how certain everyone was that the Braves would fall apart, but somehow, they did not (and would not for a dozen years). The winning was persistent enough that finally my sports editor sent me to write my first Major League Baseball game. I was insanely nervous, and utterly clueless, and then I found myself in the clubhouse after a victory with no idea whatsoever what I was supposed to do next. I felt a hand on my shoulder.

[MORE: Glavine, Maddux, Thomas headed to Cooperstown]

“You look lost,” Tom Glavine said.

“Um, well, no, I’m from the Augusta Chronicle and, um, I’m supposed to, um, write a story.”

“Yeah, I figured that,” Glavine said. “Come over to my locker, I’ll help you with your story.”

I don’t know that the conversation was quite that decipherable. I’m sure I did a lot more hemming and hawing. And I’m not sure that Glavine said those exact words. But both points were expressed. I was panicked, and he had chosen to help. I followed Glavine to his locker, he told me all about the Braves season and I wrote a story. And I have never forgotten the kindness.

So, I claim no objectivity when it comes to Glavine’s awesomeness. I have always viewed Glavine’s career through that prism — the guy who saved me when I was young. It’s funny because, looking back, he was young, too. He was not even a year older than me. He was not much bigger than me. But worlds separated us. Glavine was having his breakout season — he would win his first of two Cy Young Awards.

[Calcaterra: Glavine — Skinny, sweating and scared]

What’s easy to miss is that Glavine, for most of his career, was a power pitcher. It’s easy to miss because, compared to other stars of his time, Glavine did not strike out a lot of hitters. Also he grew famous for the circle change-up that he perfected.

But especially early in his career, Glavine threw his fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, he had a hard slider he could mix in with a curveball and he was great athlete (he was taken in the fourth round of the NHL Entry Draft). The reason he did not strike out that many (among 300 game winners, only Early Wynn had a lower strikeout-to-walk ratio) was because strikeouts were not his thing.

What was his thing? Well … remember the “Battle of wits” scene in “The Princess Bride?”

“But it’s so simple – all I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I clearly cannot choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool. You would have counted on it. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.”

That, in a beautiful and hilarious paragraph, was Tom Glavine’s pitching style. His poison was simply this: He intended to get the hitter to swing a pitch at the knees and three inches outside the strike zone. The only question was how he was going to do it. The battle of wits had begun!

[MORE: Glavine’s reaction to Hall call]

One way Glavine might do this was to throw every single pitch at the knees and three inches outside the strike zone. It certainly seemed that entire games went by when Glavine did not throw even one strike. This strategy — the “look, eventually the hitter has to swing” strategy — was brutally effective.*

*This was especially effective — anti-Braves fans will tell you — because many of those Glavine pitches three inches outside of the strike zone were actually called strikes by accommodating umpires. This is certainly sour grapes up to a point. But it will be interesting to see if Glavine, among his Hall of Fame speech thank yous, throws one out there to the home-plate umpires.

Another of Glavine’s strategies was to throw the exact pitch that he should not throw. The great Tony Gwynn used to say that one of his great pleasures was matching up against Glavine because he knew that anything was on the table. A 2-0 change-up? Maybe. A down-the-middle fastball at 0-2? Possible. A slider in a fastball count, a fastball in a change-up count, a 3-2 pitch at the knees and three inches outside? You bet. With others, Gwynn more or less knew what was coming because he had studied them so intently. With Glavine, though Gwynn had studied him even more, his best strategy was to expect PRECISELY what he did not expect. That made for some epic matchups.

Another Glavine strategy was to get ahead in the count. That’s obvious, but it was a near religion with Glavine. First-pitch strikes (even if it meant throwing his low-and-outside fastball that looked better than it was and getting a foul ball) were everything. So Glavine threw A LOT of fastballs. The circle change was often his best pitch — it was undetectable, and it moved so much that it was all but impossible to hit solidly — but Glavine knew like all great things it would lose some of its wonder if used too much.

“If I throw 100 pitches in a game,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci back in 1997, “I’ll probably throw as many as 70 fastballs. … Too many guys pitch backward. They throw their breaking ball so much that it’s almost like their fastball is their off-speed pitch.”

Glavine won two Cy Young Awards and finished Top 3 another four times. He won 305 games and another 14 in the postseason. He made exactly 400 starts between 1991 and 2002 and averaged 224 innings per season, and in that time the Braves won with a sort of bland consistency that marks them as one of baseball’s great teams.

And the thing was that in all those years, hitters never quite caught up to him. They never quite figured him out. They didn’t understand that, just like in the Princess Bride, there was nothing to figure out, that they had no chance to win the battle of wits. The Dread Pirate Roberts built up an immunity to iocane powder. The Dread Brave Glavine had done pretty much the same thing.

Mariners sign reliever Joel Peralta

Joel Peralta
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Right-hander Joel Peralta has agreed to a minor-league contract with the Mariners that includes an invitation to spring training.

Peralta spent last season with the Dodgers and was limited to 29 innings by neck and back problems, posting a 4.34 ERA and 24/8 K/BB ratio. Los Angeles declined his $2.5 million option, making him a free agent.

He was one of the most underrated relievers in baseball from 2010-2014, logging a total of 318 innings with a 3.34 ERA and 342 strikeouts, but at age 40 he’s shown signs of decline. Still, for a minor-league deal and no real commitment Peralta has a chance to be a nice pickup for Seattle’s bullpen.

White Sox sign Mat Latos

Mat Latos
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Jerry Crasnick reports that the Chicago White Sox have signed Mat Latos.

Latos was pretty spiffy between 2010-2014, posting sub-3.50 ERAs each year.  Then the injuries came and he fell apart. He pitched for three teams in 2015 — the Dodgers, Angels, and Marlins — with a combined 4.95 ERA in 113 innings. And he didn’t make friends on those clubs either, with reports of clubhouse strife left in his wake.

In Chicago he gets a fresh start. It doesn’t come in a park that will do him any favors — Latos and U.S. Cellular Field don’t seem like a great match — but at this point beggars can’t be choosers.

 

Jason Castro loses arbitration hearing against Astros

Jason Castro
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Veteran catcher Jason Castro and the Astros went through with an arbitration hearing over a difference of $250,000 and the three-person panel ruled in favor of the team.

That means Castro will make $5 million this season rather than his requested amount of $5.25 million. This is his final year of arbitration eligibility, so the 29-year-old catcher will be a free agent after the season.

Castro showed a lot of promise early on, including making the All-Star team at age 26 in 2013, but since then he’s hit just .217 with a .650 OPS in 230 games. His power and pitch-framing skills are a valuable combination even within sub par overall production, so 2016 will be a key year for the former first-round draft pick.

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Eminent Domain and the history of the Rangers Ballpark

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump addresses supporters at a campaign rally, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
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Eminent Domain — the right of a government to take/buy private property for public use — and its implications has always been a controversial topic. It became far more controversial in the 1990s and early 2000s, however,  as the practice, which is intended for public projects like roads and stuff, was increasingly used in ways to help developers and businesses.

The controversy came to a head in the 2005 case Kelo v. City of New London in which the Supreme Court held that general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth — not just direct public works — qualified as a “public use” under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The upshot: if someone had a good argument that a shopping mall would benefit the community, Mr. Developer and the government can force you to sell them their house.

This led to a HUGE backlash, with property rights people freaking out about what seemed like a pretty clear abuse of governmental power serving the interests of developers. Some 44 states have since passed laws outlawing the use of Eminent Domain for purely economic development. Some of that backlash has gone too far in the other direction, with some laws getting passed which not only required compensation to landowners if land was taken, but merely if land was diminished in value.  Like, if the government passes an environmental regulation which makes your private, for-profit toxic waste dump less lucrative than it was, the government has to pay you. It’s crazy stuff, really. And all of those laws notwithstanding, the topic continues to be a controversial one, with battles over what, exactly, is “public” what is a “public good” and all of that raging on. It’s rather fascinating. At least for boring nerfherders like me.

In the recent GOP presidential debate Donald Trump and Jeb Bush got into it on the topic, with Trump — a real estate developer, or course — defending the use of Eminent Domain to take land for economic development and Bush — a really desperate dude who at this point will take ANY position he can if it’ll give him traction — opposing it. In the days since they’ve continued to fight about it, with Trump charging Bush with hypocrisy since his brother, George W., was an owner of the Texas Rangers when they built their new ballpark with the help of Eminent Domain.

Ahh, yes. We finally get to baseball.

Today Nathaniel Rakich of Baseballot digs into that project and looks at how it all played out against the Eminent Domain debate. It touches on stuff we talk about a lot around here: are ballparks engines of economic development or merely for the enrichment of ballclubs? If they are built by a municipality, are they public goods? Wait, how can they be public goods if you can’t just walk into them for free? And the arguments go on.

It’s fascinating stuff showing, once again, that the real world and baseball intersect all the dang time and it’s handy to have a handle on just how, exactly, it does so.