February 16, 2010
It's easy to forget just how great Tom Glavine was. He spent much of his career as the No. 2 starter on his team, and numerous younger fans have more memories of Glavine's time with the New York Mets than his incredible run with the Atlanta Braves during the '90s. The fact that he has been gone from the game for a year, never making it onto a major-league mound during the 2009 season (and making only 13 starts in 2008) has not helped matters, either, as his retirement seemed more like a foregone conclusion than an impactful and surprising announcement. Regardless, Glavine's contributions on the field are worth celebrating, as he is one of the most successful pitchers of his generation, as well as one of the top left-handers in the game's history.
Thomas Michael Glavine was born in 1966 in Concord, Mass., but it was in nearby Billerica that he would become a multi-sport star. Glavine played both hockey and baseball, and excelled at both-as a senior, he was named the Merrimack Valley's MVP in hockey, and that same year also won the Division I North Title and Eastern Massachusetts championship in baseball. Though it's tough to forecast just how good he would have been had he stuck with hockey, it's worth noting he was selected in the fourth round (69th overall) in the 1984 draft, two rounds ahead of Brett Hull and five rounds ahead of Luc Robitaille, who were inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame last year.
Glavine chose to stick with baseball, and was selected by the Braves in the second round of the 1984 amateur entry draft. He would make his major-league debut late in the 1987 season, in an appearance that did nothing to convey what kind of career he had before him: Glavine lasted 3.2 innings, giving up six runs, five walks, and whiffing just one hitter versus the Houston Astros. He wasn't much better in his second season, posting a record of 7-17 that was partially the fault of the team around him as the Braves lost 106 games and also Glavine's, as he was still learning how to pitch against major-leaguers and posted an ERA well below the league average thanks to an awful strikeout rate and too many walks for so few whiffs.
Things would turn around in 1989, though, as Glavine knocked his K/BB rate up by one to 2.3 thanks to a decrease in his walk rate, and posted a league-average ERA alongside his first winning record. The next year gave him another average season, this time with a bump in his strikeout rate (but the return of his walks). The 1991 season would be the first time he was able to both strike out hitters and avoid putting them on base via walks at the same time, and the results were what we now consider to be vintage Glavine-in one of his greatest season in a career full of them, he picked up 20 wins, posted an ERA 53 percent above the league average (the second best rate of his career) while striking out 7.0 per nine and finishing with his highest K/BB ratio. This was also the beginning of a three-year stretch where he won at least 20 games, as well as the first time he would win a Cy Young Award. The Braves moved from perennial doormat to World Series contender in 1991 as well, though they would lose in seven games to the Minnesota Twins.
Glavine was always hittable, especially as he lost velocity later on in his career, but his ability to locate his pitches and change speeds in order to deceive hitters made him very successful for a long time. This was very evident during this first stretch of success from 1991-93, when Glavine struck out just 5.6 batters per nine innings over 711 innings, but allowed 2.9 walks per nine while also keeping the ball in the yard at 0.5 homers per nine. He had a knack for inducing soft contact thanks to the movement on his pitches, which kept the number of hits down.
The 1993 season was particularly special, with the Braves winning 104 games behind a rotation of Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, and the recently acquired Greg Maddux. Maddux and Smoltz, Hall of Famers in their own right, need no introduction, but even Avery was, at this stage, a very talented starting pitcher with a future many felt was brighter than any of his rotation mates'. They can't all be Cooperstown-bound, though, and Avery's career fizzled while the other starters continued their reign of dominance over the National League. The Braves went down to the wire with the San Francisco Giants, who at that time were in the same division, the West, as Atlanta as this was the final season before the three-division format, which saw the Braves shift to the NL East, and the wild card were introduced. Both teams would finish with more victories than the East's leader, the Philadelphia Phillies, but only one could advance to the playoffs. Glavine's performance was part of the reason the teams were so close-despite winning 22 games and succeeding against most of the league consistently, Glavine whiffed against the Giants, with an ERA of 5.29 across 17 innings and three starts. He was much better against the Phillies in his lone playoff start that season, going seven in a victory that saw him give up two runs and no walks while striking out five, but alas, the Braves did not prevail in the series.
Excepting 1994, when he was surprisingly average, Glavine had a consistent and high level of performance from 1991-98, which is remarkable. His lowest ERA+ in that span was 127, and the highest 168-even including 1994, his average for that stretch was 139. After three straight years in the playoffs (remember, the '94 season was cut short by a players' strike and the playoffs and World Series canceled) Glavine and the Braves would finally win a World Series in 1995 against the Cleveland Indians. Glavine excelled in all three rounds of the postseason. Though he picked up just two victories, both in the World Series, he threw 28 innings and allowed just six runs total, five earned, and took home MVP honors of the Fall Classic for his efforts.
That would be the lone World Series championship of Glavine's career, but the highlights were not over. He would cap off the stretch referred to above with the most productive season of his career in 1998, winning his second Cy Young Award, thanks to a 20-6 record and a 2.46 ERA. This Cy Young was the seventh that the trio of Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine picked up from 1991-98-the only time a Brave did not win a Cy Young for eight years was in 1997, when Montreal Expos' Pedro Martinez did, though Maddux won his first while still with the Chicago Cubs in 1992.
While Glavine's career and productive years were far from over, 1998 was the final year of his most dominant times. Three of his final four seasons in Atlanta saw him comfortably around the 130 ERA+ mark, but that was the best he had left in him at this late stage-not a surprise, given that by the time his deal with the Braves had expired after the 2002 season and he was signing with the rival Mets, Glavine was 37 years old. His first season in New York was also his first with a below-average ERA since 1989, but he was able to turn things around with three quality years in a row from 2003-06, producing WARP of 4.4, 3.6 and 3.0 (as well as ERA+ of 119, 116 and 114).
In the last of those three years, Glavine would reach the playoffs for the first time since his exit from Atlanta, and the last time in his career. He picked up a win against the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, going six innings without allowing a run, and then won and lost a decision against the Cardinals in the National League Championship matchup that followed. This put an end to 12 seasons of playoff baseball for Glavine that spanned 24 series, including four trips to the World Series. For his career he had a pretty great season in the playoffs, with a 14-16 record, 218.1 innings pitched over 35 starts and a 3.30 ERA.
The 2007 season began with Glavine 10 wins shy of 300 career victories. Though his ERA did not show it, he was nearly as effective in '07 as '06, and was able to notch a few historic wins under his belt as well. First, on June 27, Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine all started, and all three former teammates won. Smoltz was still with the Braves, though he had switched back and forth between the roles of starter and closer, and Maddux was pitching for the San Diego Padres at the time. Next up was his 300th victory, which came against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Aug. 5. Thankfully for a generation of fans that watched his successes for years, Glavine's victory was shown on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. It wasn't the prettiest outing of his career-6.1 innings, one walk and strikeout apiece and a pair of runs-but he picked up the victory and became the 23rd 300-game winner in baseball history and the fifth left-hander to achieve the feat.
Not everything was peachy for Glavine that season though-after throwing 200 innings with a 4.14 ERA through 33 starts, Glavine took the mound in a must-win, last-ditch game against the Marlins. The Mets needed a win to force a one-game playoff with Philadelphia or to take the NL East title for themselves, but Glavine ended up pitching so poorly that his ERA skyrocketed to 4.45-seven runs in one-third of an inning will do that to your ERA.
The Mets chose not to re-sign Glavine, and the future Hall of Famer, now with 303 career victories, a World Series ring and MVP, two Cy Young Awards, 10 All-Star Game appearances and even four Silver Sluggers (Glavine, a career .186/.244/.210 hitter, is second only to Mike Hampton in career Silver Sluggers for pitchers) went back home to Atlanta for 2008. Sadly, the reunion did not go very well for either side. Glavine picked up two more victories, but the 42-year old made just the 13 starts in an injury-shortened campaign. It was the first time in his 22-year career that he visited the disabled list, and it was a sign of things to come. Atlanta would re-sign him for 2009 as well, but he never pitched in a major-league game, as he was released before he finished a minor-league rehab assignment.
It was a quiet end to a storied career, one that, while overshadowed by Maddux, merits Hall of Fame attention. Among Glavine's contemporaries-meaning those who played from the year he made his debut through the year he finished-he ranks fourth among pitchers at 81.3 WARP, behind just Roger Clemens (121.2), Maddux (115.8) and Randy Johnson (89.8), three of the best post-World War II pitchers. Glavine is in the top 10 among all players for the same span of time, which is impressive when you consider we're talking about a list with Barry Bonds (182.5), Alex Rodriguez (95.3), Jeff Bagwell (91.3), Frank Thomas (90.3), Barry Larkin (85.2) and Ivan Rodriguez (81.6)
The year 2009 was the first since I was an infant that Glavine did not take the mound in a major-league game. It's strange to think of how many players in professional baseball weren't born or hadn't taken their first steps when Glavine was first called up to the Braves in 1987. While this generation of players will never be able to face a pitcher they grew up watching, they and everyone else can still remember just how great a career Glavine had. Thanks for the memories, Tommy.