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Has Tyler Glasnow demonstrated enough to be the Pirates’ fifth starter?

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Atlanta Braves Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Biertempfel reports that an unknown Pirates “decision-maker” recently expressed frustration with the team’s battle for the fifth starter job by bluntly opining, “I wish one of them would just step up and grab it.”

Hours later, Tyler Glasnow, likely unaware of the comment, stepped onto the mound and laid the foundation for his claim on the fifth spot, striking out five Phillies batters in four innings. He followed that game up Saturday with another strong performance against Detroit, with a tantalizing nine strikeouts in just four innings. While it was far from a flawless showing (he gave up three runs, two earned), Glasnow was victim to both some shoddy infield defense and a few poor calls at the plate.

Just a few days earlier, one of his competitors, Drew Hutchison, struggled through another start, coughing up six runs in his second straight game. Of course, Trevor Williams or Steven Brault could ultimately serve as a stopgap should the team not choose either, but there’s no denying at this point that the central question looming this week is whether the Bucs’ top prospect will make the big league squad or continue to hone his craft in Indianapolis.

Observations from Saturday’s game

Glasnow wasn’t exactly facing Detroit’s finest since the team’s top five hitters (Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, JD Martinez, Victor Martinez, and Nick Castellanos) were all absent from the lineup, so even if the strikeout numbers were flashy, they may not be the best representative of his performance. Nevertheless, Glasnow’s performance was encouraging.

For starters, Glasnow effectively altered the speed of his fastball throughout the game, touching 97 mph on several occasions but primarily working between 90-95 mph. He didn’t always hit his marks, even leaving a juicy 91-MPH fastball hanging over the plate for a Tyler Collins homer. But the outing was leaps and bounds ahead of his previous starts as he methodically worked the corners of the plate. What was more impressive than that was the noticeably different movement between his four-seamer and his two-seamer.

All offseason, pundits and fans discussed the need for Glasnow to add a third offering, so much was made about the new two-seam changeup grip he was seen using at camp. Yet, there was little dialog regarding the return of the two-seam fastball he had largely abandoned at the organization’s beckoning in his early days of the minors. The pitch was on display Saturday as Glasnow mixed and matched it with his four-seamer, and though it wasn’t as effective as the four-seamer, you have to think Francisco Cervelli had to have something to do with the increased number, since the uptick coincides with his first time catching Glasnow this spring.

If that combination continues to develop, it will only make his curveball more difficult to hit. After all, its devastating movement continues to baffle hitters as it did Andrew Romine in the top of the first:

One of the knocks on Glasnow from the Phillies game last week was the inconsistency in his mechanics. It is understandable given all the different changes he’s made this offseason, but the windup and rockstep weren’t as crisp as they were this afternoon. Maybe he was trying to be more deceptive against Philadelphia, as he occasionally threw a pitch without rocking at all, but for a guy who needs to work on consistency in his mechanics, his steadier performance against Detroit was certainly a step in the right direction.

As far as negatives are concerned, it was less about the runs and more about how he got them, succumbing to a disjointed attack pitching out of the stretch. It all started when a playable ball zipped past Phil Gosselin at the hot corner allowing Brendan Ryan to take two bases. Next, Romine approached the plate hesitant to swing watching the first two pitches go by for balls. Glasnow then threw a quality fastball for strike one before just missing on the next pitch to bring the count to 3-1. Still, he kept attacking, with a called strike and a couple of enticing pitches that were fouled off. Unfortunately, a line drive scooted past Adam Frazier at short that a better glove might have snagged.

With runners on first and third, Glasnow lost focus for a single pitch, missing his mark on the first fastball to allow the aforementioned home run to Collins. It was a discouraging moment in an otherwise strong day, but on the bright side, he responded to the adversity by striking out the next two batters and induced a ground out by the third.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Glasnow’s performance was his continual reluctance to use his changeup despite the need to demonstrate proficiency with the pitch. To suggest he threw more than a handful the entire day would be generous because there were few that could be characterized as such by virtue of having enough velocity separation or movement from his fastball. There was some improvement and slightly more use, but an equal number of 88-89 MPH “slow fastballs” that were supposed to be changeups but that too closely resembled the ones he tossed last season. For whatever reason, Glasnow apparently still doesn’t have either the confidence or ability to rely on the pitch in any meaningful way.

To be fair, it’s hard to knock Glasnow’s development too much because the two-seam fastball is a new wrinkle to the arsenal. But he desperately needs to do something with that changeup if he wants to be able to pitch deep into games, especially with a propensity to be wild with the fastball. Until he can do that, it is difficult to see how Pittsburgh could justify having him break camp with the team.

Glasnow has utterly dominated minor-league hitting, and the vast upside he possesses is something the organization has been dying to see realized in Pittsburgh, but what is the harm in letting him spend at least a few weeks to a month down in Indianapolis? A couple of lackluster starts out of Brault (or the dreadful Hutchison) isn’t likely to cripple the team’s playoff aspirations.

There are those who advocate letting Glasnow take his lumps with the big-league squad as either a starter or reliever, but that seems less beneficial than giving him some low-pressure starts in the minors. This spring was when Glasnow was supposed to focus more on sharpening and expanding his arsenal; yet, he’s often resorted to trying to out-pitch opposing batters the way he always has and essentially becoming preoccupied with limiting the runs in a meaningless game (not the worst trait for a competitor) rather than taking chances with the new changeup. Can the team really expect that to change in Pittsburgh early in the season?

If the Pirates use Glasnow as a reliever, he isn’t going to need to utilize the changeup at all. His raw stuff is lethal enough to keep hitters off-guard with just the fastball and curveball, so while he might grow in some areas from the experience, it won’t ameliorate his offspeed pitch like he really needs to do.

Instead, what needs to happen, as much as it pains us fans to admit, is that Glasnow needs to go down and not just dominate (because the team knows that he can do that) but be forced to chuck and chuck the changeup until he gains the slightest confidence in the pitch even if the resulting numbers aren’t impeccable.

It wouldn’t be a popular decision, but Glasnow’s long-term development is too important to stymie right now. The team stands to benefit more potentially this season and in years to come by doing everything they can to put Glasnow in the best position to be successful. And if something drastically changes with the team, he’s only a phone call away.


Has Glasnow demonstrated enough to be the Pirates’ fifth starter?

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