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August 6, 2007

Prospectus Today

Learning from Experience

by Joe Sheehan

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I might owe someone an apology.

Remains the Atlanta starter most likely to "go Mulholland." Fair or not, much of Glavine's success has come from exploiting umpires who call pitches six inches outside "strikes." The day that pitch becomes a ball again, Glavine loses a big chunk of his value. Not only will he then have to get hitters out in a conventional fashion, but he'll have to unlearn on the fly a way of pitching he's grown accustomed to.

That's the Tom Glavine player comment from Baseball Prospectus 1998, and it's my handiwork. For those of you who don't remember the other left-hander, to "go Mulholland" means to blow up suddenly and inexplicably, with career-altering results, as Mulholland did in 1994.

Suffice to say that Glavine avoided this fate. In the season after this was written, the Braves left-hander posted the lowest ERA of his career and picked up his second NL Cy Young Award. Rather than going Terry Mulholland, Glavine has gone Don Sutton, remaning healthy and effective for a decade past his peak, putting up above-average ERAs for good teams, and virtually never missing a start. Glavine's durability is his calling card; he's third among active pitchers with 659 career starts, and that has been the key to his reaching 300 wins on Sunday night in Chicago.

Glavine has been credited with 147 wins since I wrote the comment above. His post-1997 performance, what he's done since I wrote him off, would be worth $150 million or more to a pitcher who had never experienced the first half of Glavine's career:


                        W   L     ERA     IP       WARP3 
Pre-silly comment     153  99    3.60   2076.1      67.2
Post-silly comment    147  98    3.39   2217.1      65.6

Like Barry Bonds did, Glavine reaches his milestone while still a productive player; he's been an average or above-average starter in each of his five seasons as a Met, and after last night's outing, has a 4.31 ERA (96 ERA+) in 144 innings over 24 starts this season. As I've written a number of times this year, reaching a statistical milestone has significantly more meaning when the player doing so isn't playing for his statistics, and isn't merely holding on to reach a number. Glavine is pushing a team towards a championship.

Glavine's success with terrific command of superficially unimpressive stuff and statistics that did not herald longevity taught me lessons about emphasizing one statistic and trusting my own eyes. While there was probably some truth to the idea that Glavine was the beneficiary of a wide strike zone in many of his starts, he's managed to adjust to the Questec era. You don't hear nearly as many complaints about the 23-inch-wide plate as you used to, and yet Glavine continues to put up 32 starts a year. Glavine has also been effective with strikeout rates and strikeout-to-walk ratios that would normally indicate trouble. This may be because he's effective with runners on base by never giving in.

In his career, Glavine's unintentional walk rate is more than twice as high with runners in scoring position as it is with no one on base. His slugging average, however, drops by 32 points and his ISO by 36 points. Over more than 4000 innings, that's the evidence of an approach-staying away and refusing to pitch to hitters' power when the cost of an extra-base hit is highest and the cost of a walk is lowest. Glavine has kept runs off the board by being patient and trusting his command. (Statistics courtesy baseball-reference.com.)

There's more than one way to get to 300 wins. Congratulations to Tom Glavine for reaching one of the game's most cherished milestones, and for reminding us all, once again, that the best part about baseball is that it surprises you.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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