Prospect Retrospective: Tom Glavine
Tom Glavine was an outstanding athlete in high school, growing up in North Billerica, Massachusetts. He thrived in both baseball and hockey: indeed, he was so good at hockey that he was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the fourth round of the NHL draft. Glavine, however, decided on a baseball career after being selected by the Atlanta Braves in the second round of the June '84 MLB draft, as the 72nd-overall choice. Glavine was considered a first-round talent by most baseball teams, but the hockey thing scared people away and the Braves were the first club to risk the pick.
Obviously, this worked out just fine.
Glavine was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Braves after signing, posting a 3.34 ERA with a 34/13 K/BB in 32 innings with 29 hits allowed, a very credible professional debut. He wasn't big (6-0, 175), but his athleticism stood out, he threw strikes, and was polished for a cold-weather high school pitcher. Pending higher-level data, a similar guy would likely get a Grade B from me now.
Assigned to Sumter in the Low-A South Atlantic League for 1985, Glavine made 26 starts and threw 169 innings, a workload that might get a farm director arrested these days. He handled the innings without trouble, posting a 2.35 ERA with a 174/73 K/BB and only 114 hits allowed. The walk rate was a bit higher than ideal (I do wonder what his pitch counts were like), but the strikeouts looked good and overall he didn't have a lot of trouble with the competition. At this point, he threw in the low-90s and was developing his curveball, slider, and changeup. I would give a similar pitcher a Grade B+ now, perhaps an A- depending on the exact reports.
Glavine began 1986 at Double-A Greenville in the Southern League, more than holding his own at age 20 with an 11-6, 3.41 mark and a 114/70 K/BB in 145 innings with 129 hits. This got him promoted to Triple-A Richmond, where he got killed in seven starts: 1-5, 5.62 with a 12/27 K/BB in 40 innings. Nobody held that against him though: overall he threw 185 innings on the season. Again, can you imagine what people would say about that workload now?
His walk rate was still elevated this year and the strikeouts were down, not good signs. I remember some concern that he was nibbling too much, especially in Triple-A, but he was still a fine prospect. I might have ranked him as a Grade B+, perhaps as Danny Hultzen did this year for the Mariners despite his problems in Triple-A. I might have gone with a B or maybe even a B-. It is hard to say in retrospect.
Glavine returned to Richmond for 1987 and went 6-12, but with a 3.35 ERA and a 91/56 K/BB in 150 innings with 142 hits. He got a pretty large cup-of-coffee with the Braves, going 2-4, 5.54 in nine starts with a 20/33 K/BB in 50 innings, exceeding rookie qualifications for 1988.
I saw a LOT of Glavine on cable TV back in those days. At times he looked quite good, working the strike zone with his fastball/changeup/breaking ball combination, but he was also very erratic. He would go through phases where his location was off, or where he seemed afraid of the hitters. He lost 17 games in 1988 at age 22, with a 4.56 ERA in 195 innings (ERA+80).
He began to improve with league-average performance in '89 and '90, keeping his WAR positive both seasons (2.2 and 2.2) while eating innings, then took a gigantic step forward during the Braves "last to first" 1991 World Series run, going 20-11, 2.55, 192/69 K/BB in 250 innings, 5.7 WAR, and winning the Cy Young Award.
You know the story from there. Although he gradually lost velocity, becoming increasingly reliant on his changeup (and what seemed to non-Braves fans like an expansive strike zone from veteran-friendly umpires) Glavine was amazingly consistent and durable, winning 20 or more games five times for Atlanta, leading the National League in starts six times, and winning a second Cy Young in 1998. He signed a five-year back-loaded free agent contract with the arch-rival New York Mets at age 37 for 2003, then returned to Atlanta for one last hurrah in '08.
Overall, Glavine posted a 3.54 ERA in 4413 career innings, 118 ERA+, with a 2607/1500 K/BB ratio. He won 305 games with a .600 winning percentage, generating 68.5 WAR. His Bill James Sim Score list: Early Wynn, Tom Seaver, Tommy John, Jamie Moyer, Red Ruffing, Jim Kaat, Mickey Welch, Jack Morris, and Randy Johnson. The Tommy John and Jim Kaat comparisons seem quite apt given their styles. Wynn was also a renowned inning-eater.
In WAR terms, Glavine's 68.5 puts him in the neighborhood of Kaat (71.2), Juan Marichal (69.9), Jerry Koosman (69.4), Andy Pettitte (68.6), Eppa Rixey (67.7), and Red Ruffing (64.9). Not all of his WAR neighbors made it into the Hall, but they all have cases, and Glavine's 305 wins will ensure that he gets in.
As a prospect, Glavine's best attributes were overall athleticism, age-relative-to-league, and the ability to eat a ton of innings at an early age without getting hurt.