Who is MLB’s most uncomfortable pitcher to face right now? Certainly Jacob deGrom has a strong claim, especially now that he’s pumping in 101 mph pitches for the first time in his career. And of course there’s Gerrit Cole, who doesn’t look intimidated at all by his new pinstripes.
There’s another contestant, however, who you haven't seen as much lately -- injuries limited Tyler Glasnow to only 67 2/3 combined innings across the regular and postseason last year. But Glasnow’s combination of physicality (he stands 6-foot-8, with about an eight-foot wingspan), velocity and a refined arsenal is making him start to look like the most truly uncomfortable at-bat in the big leagues.
That certainly seemed to be the case for the Braves, who mustered only one hit (a Dansby Swanson solo homer) while striking out nine times across Glasnow’s first four innings of 2020. With Glasnow set to take his second turn Saturday against the Orioles, here are a few reminders of why every opposing team should be circling his starts on the calendar.
He (almost literally) gets on top of you
We mentioned that wingspan, and Glasnow uses just about every inch of it as he comes downhill toward home plate. On its own, Glasnow’s 96.9 mph average velocity on his four-seam fastball tied deGrom for the third-fastest among qualified starting pitchers (min. 500) in 2019. But you also have to factor in Glasnow’s average of 7.6 feet worth of extension that he gets from the pitching rubber toward home plate before he even lets go of his heater, which led all big leaguers last year (for context, deGrom checked in at a 6.9-foot average extension, Cole at 6.3 feet).
This is similar to what you used to hear about Randy Johnson: It was hard enough to time up his high-90s heater, but even more so because it seemed like he was coming out to touch home plate by the time he released it. The difference is that while the Big Unit dropped down to a nearly sidearm angle, Glasnow is much closer to straight over the top, keeping his heat on a steep downward plane.
So that’s elite heat, coming at the hitters from a closer release point than anyone else, leaving them a short amount of time to react. Oh, and here’s a scary thought for the Orioles and the rest of Tampa Bay’s opponents: Glasnow’s fastball velocity (97.6 mph) and extension (7.9-foot average) in that first start against the Braves were both even better than in 2019.
He’s a refined pitcher, now -- not just a thrower
We detailed some of the changes Glasnow made last year with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, but it’s worth reiterating that he not only seems to have his massive frame aligned and in working order, he also has his four-pitch arsenal tuned up for optimal domination. We say “four-pitch” with Glasnow because his fastball can really act in two ways: one that rides the top of the zone with all that heat and extension, and another that cuts to his glove side.
A 97-plus mph fastball is hard enough to time, but when it cuts, well, only one pitcher featured a cutter that fast last year (Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase), and he’s suspended for the rest of this season. Plus, we’re in danger of burying the lead with what could be Glasnow’s deadliest pitch: his curveball. It’s a hook that absolutely benefits by playing off that suffocating heat, but it’s plenty filthy in its own right -- it tied for the 12th-most vertical movement above average last year (min. 100 curves thrown) while just missing the top 10 in terms of average velocity at 83.5 mph.
Glasnow used this pitch more last year, and hey, look at that … it was MLB’s very best curve by Statcast’s xwOBA metric, which takes both the amount of contact and quality of contact into account. Owning the league’s most dominant hook on top of perhaps its most imposing fastball is an embarrassment of riches, and, not for nothing, the Braves struck out in all four of their at-bats ending on Glasnow’s curve last week.
(Glasnow’s changeup is his fourth pitch more in name than in practice; he only threw 32 tracked changeups last year, and three in his first 2020 start against Atlanta.)
As you can now imagine once we put the heaters and the hook together, Glasnow could have legitimately claimed to have been MLB’s most dominant starter last year -- with a lack of health and innings being his only downfall. Among the 176 starters who faced at least 200 batters last year, Tampa Bay’s towering giant ranked right at the top with a .237 xwOBA, ahead of Cole, Justin Verlander, deGrom and Max Scherzer. Maybe it’s hard to believe that Glasnow really ranks among those names as one of the best pitchers in baseball, and true, he does need to prove it over a larger sample of games.
But don't just take our word for it, here's Braves manager Brian Snitker's assessment:
“He was almost like deGrom was the other day,” said Snitker, whose club faced deGrom on Opening Day. “That’s as good as I’ve seen him. He was effectively wild. But he’s got a really good breaking ball, and the fastball was jumping out of his hand. It was pretty good. He threw a lot of pitches for the time he was out there, but the stuff was electric.”
Atlanta sent 15 batters to the plate, and mustered three baserunners. Braves hitters swung 31 times, and whiffed on 15 of them -- including four of seven times against that curveball. It’s not that far off from how we saw Glasnow blow through lineups last year, and if he wasn’t already on your list of must-watch pitchers when his turn came up in the Rays’ rotation, consider this another reminder. It’s not too late to jump on the Glasnow bandwagon.