Braves v Yankees X

The dizzying intellect of Tom Glavine


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.

ALDS, Game 2: Rangers vs. Blue Jays lineups

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Here are the Rangers and Blue Jays lineups for Game 2 of the ALDS in Toronto:

CF Delino DeShields
RF Shin-Soo Choo
DH Prince Fielder
1B Mitch Moreland
SS Elvis Andrus
LF Josh Hamilton
2B Rougned Odor
C Chris Gimenez
3B Hanser Alberto

SP Cole Hamels

Adrian Beltre is out of the starting lineup after leaving Game 1 with what appeared to be a significant back injury, leaving Hanser Alberto to fill in at third base. With a right-hander on the mound Mike Napoli goes to the bench and Mitch Moreland starts at first base, and manager Jeff Banister also switched up the batting order a bit without Beltre in the No. 3 spot. Robinson Chirinos homered in Game 1, but he takes a seat in Game 2 so that Chris Gimenez can catch Cole Hamels.

LF Ben Revere
3B Josh Donaldson
RF Jose Bautista
DH Edwin Encarnacion
SS Troy Tulowitzki
1B Chris Colabello
C Russell Martin
2B Ryan Goins
CF Kevin Pillar

SP Marcus Stroman

Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista are both in the starting lineup after leaving Game 1 with injuries, which is particularly good news in Donaldson’s case because he suffered a potentially serious head injury sliding into second base. Toronto’s only change from Game 1 is subbing Chris Colabello for Justin Smoak at first base with a left-hander on the mound. There’s right-handed power all over the place, so Hamels’ changeup may be the key to the entire game.

Royals will bring back Yordano Ventura to start Game 4

Yordano Ventura
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Thursday night’s rain delay cut Yordano Ventura‘s start short after just two innings, as the Royals opted to turn to reliever Chris Young instead of bringing the 24-year-old right-hander back out to the mound following the delay.

One benefit to that is what manager Ned Yost has decided to do now, which is use Ventura to start Game 4 on Monday. Had he thrown, say, 102 pitches instead of 42 pitches Ventura likely would have started Game 5, forcing the Royals to go four starters deep in their ALDS rotation.

Ventura struggled before the delay Monday, allowing three runs in two innings. However, he finished the regular season by going 7-1 with a 2.38 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 innings over his final 11 starts, which was enough to convince Yost he was the right pitcher to start Game 1 rather than trade deadline pickup Johnny Cueto.

Playoff Reset: Four games in one day!

Cole Hamels

Oh baby.

There’s baseball from noon to midnight today, with a pair of Game 2s in the American League and a pair of Game 1s in the National League.

Tons of great starting pitchers–including the best in the world and a trio of big-name trade deadline acquisitions–and we’ll find out if a home team can actually win a game after starting the playoffs 0-4.

The Game: Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays
The Time: 12:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Rogers Centre, Toronto
The Channel: MLB Network
The Starters: Cole Hamels vs. Marcus Stroman
The Upshot: Stroman coming back from what was deemed a season-ending knee injury in spring training to start Game 2 of the ALDS is a helluva story and the Blue Jays need him to come up big after David Price failed to do his part in Game 1. Yovani Gallardo somehow wriggled out of trouble against Toronto’s scary lineup, but as a left-hander Hamels has an even tougher assignment versus the never-ending right-handed power. Assuming it’s all in the lineup, of course. There are big health question marks for both sides, as Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, and Jose Bautista all exited Game 1 with injuries and their respective statuses could swing the balance of power in the series.

The Game: Houston Astros vs. Kansas City Royals
The Time: 3:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City
The Channel: FOX Sports 1
The Starters: Scott Kazmir vs. Johnny Cueto
The Upshot: Two headline-grabbing trade deadline pickups with a lot to prove, as Kazmir and Cueto both struggled for their new teams. Cueto was bumped back to Game 2 after being acquired to front the Royals’ rotation and there was some speculation that Kazmir might not even have a spot in the ALDS rotation. Kansas City losing Game 1 last night and Houston having Dallas Keuchel waiting in the wings for Game 3 puts a ton of pressure on Cueto’s shoulders. Generally one of the toughest pitchers to homer against, he allowed 10 homers in 13 starts for the Royals and the Astros’ power-packed lineup will put him to the test all afternoon. Can the defending AL champs get off the mat quickly or will they head to Houston in need of a win to keep the season alive?

The Game: Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The Time: 6:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Busch Stadium, St. Louis
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Jon Lester vs. John Lackey
The Upshot: Former Red Sox teammates Lester and Lackey square off in Game 1 of the first ever playoff series between two of the biggest rivals in baseball, with the Cubs fresh off their Wild Card game triumph over the Pirates and the Cardinals coming off an MLB-high 100 wins. Yadier Molina‘s ability to play through a thumb injury will be key for the Cardinals and it’ll also be interesting to see how much faith manager Mike Matheny has in Adam Wainwright to get late-inning outs as a reliever after returning from a torn Achilles’ tendon.

The Game: New York Mets vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Time: 9:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Jacob deGrom vs. Clayton Kershaw
The Upshot: Quite a way to finish an entire day of baseball, as the Mets go looking for their first playoff win since 2006 and Kershaw tries to cement his legacy as an all-time great by dominating in the playoffs like he does in the regular season. And don’t overlook deGrom, because last year’s Rookie of the Year winner has a 2.61 ERA and 349 strikeouts in 331 innings since debuting last May. Among all starters with at least 300 innings during the past two seasons Kershaw ranks first in ERA and deGrom ranks fourth, with Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke in the 2-3 slots. This is a speculator pitching matchup.