BRADENTON, Fla. – When I talked to Tyler Glasnow during mini-camp last month, he mentioned he was throwing his changeup about 50% of the time in flat ground work, trying to improve the pitch. I was skeptical that this would help, since Glasnow has shown a history of working on the pitch, but not trusting the pitch enough to throw in games. This became a big problem last year when his curveball command was off, the fastball control was poor, and he essentially became a guy with one pitch and no control.
I was shooting photos of Glasnow’s first bullpen session on Tuesday, which serves two purposes. The obvious one is to get photos for the site. I also like to go through the photos and check the mechanics and the grips. You know, because I like to party. In this session, I kept noticing the following grip, which looks a bit like a circle changeup, and was something I’ve never seen from Glasnow before.
Armed with the photo loaded on my phone today, I waited for Glasnow in the clubhouse, so that I could ask him about the grip and confirm whether it was a changeup, and a new pitch. When I showed him the grip and asked what it was, he laughed and had a simple response:
“That’s the Scott Mitchell special.”
Glasnow explained that Mitchell, the Pirates’ Senior Pitching Coordinator, came up to him on the first day of camp with the new grip. It’s kind of a two-seam grip, only with the middle and ring fingers across the seam, rather than the index and middle finger. Glasnow’s hands are so big that he can hold it like this, with the little finger on one side, and a circle change type grip on the other. The first changeup he threw off the mound had a lot of movement, and he kept throwing the pitch, instantly feeling good about it.
Again, I’ve heard Glasnow say that he’s working on his changeup in the past. I’ve heard him say he’s working on it a lot this year. But this felt different. Glasnow was excited about the new grip. He told me he was excited about it, but he didn’t really need to say it. The way he talked about it wasn’t a “going through the motions” type conversation, where he knew he had to work on the changeup, but didn’t feel good about it. Not only does he feel good about this, he was comfortable enough to use it often in the bullpen, and said he was excited to use it in games. We’ll see how that translates over to the games, but I feel this time could be different.
The Pirates have a challenge with the way they will handle Tyler Glasnow’s development this year. Glasnow’s stuff is so good that he can get away with poor command and the lack of a third pitch in Triple-A. However, when he gets to the majors, he can no longer rely on that approach to post the same level of results that he has seen in the minors. That’s part of why a changeup is so important for him.
We saw this last year. Glasnow dominated Triple-A, posting a 1.87 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. He came to the majors and the numbers were below-average, with a 4.24 ERA and a 4.26 FIP. That’s not a bad result for a back of the rotation option, and if the Pirates got that from Glasnow as their number five starter all year this year, they’d be in good shape. The problem is that Glasnow is capable of so much more.
I pointed out Glasnow’s issues all throughout the year last year. He wouldn’t trust his changeup enough to throw the pitch in games. He had continued fastball command issues, which has been an issue throughout his career, and got a bit worse at times in 2016. He didn’t have command of his curveball, which hasn’t been an issue the last few years. The end result was that there were times where he had poor fastball command and no secondary pitches to lean on when that happened. It didn’t hurt him as much in the stat line because his stuff is so good that it can dominate minor leaguers and might even be able to post back of the rotation results in the majors.
Glasnow is working on the right things to get to his full potential. Aside from the work on the changeup, he is working on shortening his stride a bit, so that he lands consistently on his foot in order to fix the command issues from last year. He also added a two-seam fastball, which he threw in high school, aimed at giving him another pitch to lean on when the others aren’t working.
All of these things are the right things to work on, but the question is whether the Pirates should have him working on those issues in the minors or the majors. In talking with Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle this week, neither ruled out the possibility of Glasnow making the Opening Day rotation, but it sounds like he will have to show some rapid improvements during Spring Training for that to happen.
“He’s got to go out and compete, and show some improvements,” Hurdle said. “There’s no free pass. We’ve got other guys that are in competition as well. We’re going to do what’s best for the team. However, I think him knowing that coming in, there’s certain things he needs to pay attention to. He does need to ratchet up, perform better along those lines. He’s well aware of it. It’s not that it can’t happen. I just see a guy who has plus-plus stuff at [the Triple-A] level, and it’s not his fault. It’s the separation of Triple-A baseball and Major League baseball. He can go down there and guys don’t get on base. So there’s not the need that there is at the Major League level to control the running game, to mix pitches.”
Huntington also talked about the gap in talent between Triple-A and the majors, and how that impacts Glasnow.
“His results at Triple-A last year show he dominated,” Huntington said. “There’s no other way to put it. He dominated Triple-A baseball last year, and those results didn’t translate [to the majors]. Which, again, reinforces that the difference in talent and depth and ability and application between Triple-A and the big leagues has never been greater. The talent gap between the two levels is significant.”
Huntington said that Glasnow needs to show “that he’s continued to mature, refine his mechanics, refine the repeatability and the consistency of the quality of the pitches” and that the changeup needs to be a weapon for him. Hurdle said that the Pirates will push Glasnow this spring and see what he can do.
“Hopefully we’ll get some of that this spring, and we’ll get him out there and be able to push him a little bit this spring and see where he can take it,” Hurdle said. “He’s ready to go. He’s fired up. I think the lessons from last year are going to be able to benefit him going into this year.”
The Pirates have other candidates for the final rotation spots. Chad Kuhl has an inside track over everyone else, leaving Glasnow battling with Drew Hutchison, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams for the final spot. Hutchison might have the inside track in that battle, since the Pirates legitimately like his upside. But none of those other pitchers come close to matching Glasnow in upside.
Glasnow will need to show some rapid improvements in Spring Training in order to win a spot. This means showing that he trusts the changeup, and showing that the pitch is a weapon. It means showing that his command issues with the curveball were fixed with the shortened stride. Ideally, that would also improve the fastball command.
If Glasnow is able to show some rapid changes, he could give the Pirates a tough decision to make. He’s got the most upside of anyone in the battle for the final two rotation spots, but the Pirates also might want to see a few starts from him in minor league games with the new stride and the new changeup before giving him a shot in the big leagues. He’ll eventually be up in the majors, and Neal Huntington had the best summary of what to expect if all goes well:
“When he puts this all together, he’s going to be a fun pitcher to watch.”
Let’s hope “the Scott Mitchell special” is the first step to that happening.