Is Tom Glavine a clutch pitcher?

The stadium scene.
Oct. 10 2006 6:44 PM

In Search of Clutch Pitching

Is Tom Glavine the best in baseball when the chips are down?

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Is Glavine, the crafty left-hander, really more clutch than the fireballing Ryan? I expected Tom House, Ryan's pitching coach when he played for the Texas Rangers, to say that was malarkey. But House says the stats make sense. House says that Ryan always struggled with a tendency to try to strike everyone out rather than settle for ground-ball outs. Ryan muscled up with men on base, causing him to overthrow and lose command. Glavine, though, places his change-up and middling fastball on the outside corner rather than trying to blow hitters away. He doesn't overthrow with men on base—he just keeps aiming for the outside corner.

Silver's lists don't suggest that strikeout pitchers can't be clutch—Steve Carlton, for one, ranks high on the all-time clutch list. There is compelling evidence, though, that clutch pitching doesn't correlate with the speed of your fastball. The top two guys on the clutchness toteboard—Whitey Ford and Jim Palmer—relied more on control and guile than velocity. The 5-foot-10 Ford, the winningest pitcher in Yankee history, relied on his legendary precision and a diverse repertoire of breaking pitches. Palmer, who famously never allowed a grand slam, told me that he owed his success to controlling his adrenaline. "You don't have to throw every pitch as hard as you can," he says.

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The choke list is littered with pitchers like Len Barker and Jose DeLeon—strikeout artists who never had great control. The most surprising name is probably Jack Morris, who pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. But like Ryan, Barker, and DeLeon, Morris was no control pitcher—he was perennially among the league leaders in walks allowed.

Several players and coaches told me that you don't want to "overthink" things in the clutch—that you should trust your ability. But perhaps it's tough for a dominant-yet-wild pitcher like Nolan Ryan to trust himself with the bases loaded—after all, he got into this situation because his physical skills let him down. For a guy like Glavine, though, the skills needed to wriggle out of a jam parallel what he always does: outsmart batters and hit his spots. Now, isn't that a guy you'd want on the mound with the bases loaded?