Tyler Glasnow remembers when he started seeing the radar guns, placed behind Southern California high school fences and pointed right at him.
Playing for Hart High School in Santa Clarita -- a school about 30 minutes north of Dodger Stadium and alma mater of James Shields and Trevor Bauer -- he lived in one of the country's hotbeds of baseball, and he was lucky enough to stand out. In 13 outings (67 innings) as a senior with the Indians in 2011, he owned a 1.25 ERA and struck out an 13.3 per nine innings, even if he did also walk 5.4 as well.
But those weren't the numbers that drew the guys with the radar guns. What they saw was a rail-thin 6-foot-7 17-year-old who was just coming into his own as a pitcher and a tall human. They fired up their equipment to gauge Glasnow's velocity. The answer: as high as 94 with his fastball early in outings but more like 82-90 once things settled in. The average was about 85-86. There was also a tight curveball and a changeup that needed work.
"I just kind of got up there and threw the ball, and that was it," he said. "That was fun. High school ball was some of the most fun I've ever had playing, but there was definitely a lot of room for improvement."
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In a baseball world where velocity is king, those figures didn't jump out, so most of the scouts packed up their notes and headed elsewhere in the region to watch talents like Robert Stephenson in Alhambra or Henry Owens in Huntington Beach.
"We tend to be big on the radar gun," said Pirates area scout Rick Allen. "He didn't always give that to you. Maybe he didn't throw as hard as the other guys. There are always a lot of options in Southern California, so everybody's always on the move unless someone makes you stay."
Allen had his marching orders, though. The Bucs, who had taken 6-foot-5 right-hander Jameson Taillon with the second overall pick in 2010, were focusing on tall pitchers. The buzzword with those types has always been projectability, and the saying is "You can't teach height." As cliché as that may be, there is plenty of truth there. Even in a world where Pedro Martinez (5-foot-11) dominated hitters during the most offensive period in the game's history and Yordano Ventura (6 feet) took the ball for the Royals in Game 2 of the World Series, tall pitchers are seen as more durable and more likely to dial up the velocity as they get older and fill out.
"You see kids like that," Allen said, "and you just dream of what they could become."
Nearly 300 professional innings later (274, to be exact), with a statline that includes a 1.94 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 365 career strikeouts, that dream is becoming Glasnow's reality as the 2014 MiLBY staff choice for Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year.
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The more Allen talked to Glasnow and his family, which included plenty of athletes like his mom, Donna, a gymnastics coach at Cal State-Northridge, and older brother Ted, an all-Big East decathlete at Notre Dame, the more he believed that this was a player that needed to be on the Pirates radar come the 2011 June Draft.
"He just basically had all the ingredients we'd been taught in our organization," Allen said. "I applied what I had been taught when I saw, and when I got to know the kid, that pretty much sold me on him."
Allen talked the Pirates into putting Glasnow on their Draft board, and Pittsburgh took the hurler in the fifth round. Of the 21 pitchers the Pirates took in 2011 -- including top overall pick Gerrit Cole (6-foot-4) -- only two were shorter than 6-foot-3.
There were two choices for Glasnow at that point. The way he framed it, he could become a pro and go under the tutelage of Pirates coaches, who assured him they could take him from a raw product to a finished one faster, or go to the University of Portland, where he committed to before his senior year with the idea that he could increase his Draft stock over three years. Something needed to break the tie. Over the course of that summer, something did.
"They kept telling me how much they wanted me," Glasnow said. "They were pretty consistent about it, just telling me how I'd get a lot better and get better quicker with them. They kept on that."
He signed on Aug. 3 -- 12 days before the deadline -- for a bonus of $600,000. Put another way, that's third-round money for a fifth-round pick and more than the Pirates gave to third-rounder/Indiana first baseman Alex Dickerson ($380,700) and fourth-rounder/Texas high-school right-hander Colten Brewer ($240,000). In the last Draft before Major League Baseball instituted signing bonus pools, the Bucs signed 11 of their top of the 12 picks, including Cole for $8 million and outfielder Josh Bell for $5 million.
Because Glasnow, who turned just 18 later that month, signed so late in 2011, the Pirates wouldn't permit him to make his professional debut until the following summer, and considering how raw he still was, they sent him to their lowest-level affiliate in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, meaning he'd spend a good chunk of his first full pro season at the team's Spring Training facility in Bradenton, Florida. It was there that he started developing a regular routine in terms of lifting weights and working out, something that had been missing at Hart, thus his previously scrawny stature.
"You could tell there wasn't a whole lot of coaching that had gone into him," said Justin Meccage, who saw Glasnow at extended spring training that year and would later work with him as pitching coach at Class A Advanced Bradenton. "The arm worked right. The body worked right. But outside of that, everything wasn't quite there yet. He got by with a whole lot of talent."
A dead arm early in summer 2012 forced him to drop throwing for a time and focus on a strengthening program, and that's when things started to click.
"As I was lifting, I could start to feel a difference," he said. "It was refreshing, and coming back, it helped me feel better. I came back, and my fastball was already 2-3 mph faster [up to the low-90s.] It was a little weird, but I knew something was working and that I had to stick with this arm routine."
With that newfound velocity, along with his improving curve and a changeup that still graded out as average, the right-hander was able to dominate his peers over a short time in the GCL. He posted a 2.10 ERA that summer and struck out 40 over 34 1/3 innings (10.5 K/9) while holding batters to a .156 average before earning a one-start cameo with Class A Short Season State College.
In short, few could touch him.
With another year working under the guidance of the Pirates pitching and strength-and-conditioning coaches, Glasnow burst onto the prospect scene at Class A West Virginia. The 6-foot-7 hurler, who credited an improvement in the changeup, was able to blow past South Atlantic League bats, hitting double digits in strikeouts (10) in a start for the first time on May 7 and upping that with 12 K's over just five innings 16 days later.
With his innings closely monitored all season, the right-hander managed a 2.18 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and Minors-best 164 strikeouts in 24 starts (111 1/3 innings). As might be expected from a growing pitcher, he was especially good late in the season, when he posted a 1.32 ERA, 13.4 K/9, 0.88 WHIP and .124 opponents batting average in his final eight starts -- the stretch during which the Pirates finally loosened the reins, allowing him to pitch into the sixth inning.
That offseason, plenty of prospect prognosticators took note of Glasnow's ascension. Entering the 2014 season, MLB.com ranked him No. 27, giving his fastball, now in the mid-90s, a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale.
The Minor League landscape would have to wait to see Glasnow -- now 20-30 pounds heavier than his scrawny high school days -- show off his stuff in 2014. Scheduled to start the season at Class A Advanced Bradenton, he tweaked his back during a Spring Training sprint workout and was placed on the disabled list to start the season. He continued his workouts in extended spring in April, and as had happened before, the time off seemed to help. In one simulated game during that time, he hit 100 on the gun "a few times," he says.
"I wasn't really trying to hit that number or anything," he said. "It just kind of happened, but it was pretty cool."
Velocity isn't exactly everything, though, and unlike their Sally League counterparts, the more advanced Florida State League hitters knew to be patient with Glasnow. After he made his debut on April 25, they still couldn't touch the right-hander (15 strikeouts, .140 average-against in his first 17 innings) so they took what they could get, which were walks. Glasnow's control, which remained his biggest problem in 2013 in West Virginia, where he walked 4.9 per nine innings, was again off. He issued 15 free passes in his first four starts.
Meccage, now his pitching coach with the Marauders, saw two ways he could fix the 20-year-old, who was still three years younger on average than the competition. First, create a routine. Glasnow, more or less, was still of a mind-set where he "got up there and threw the ball."
"He didn't really have much of anything there, so we told him to write something down and formulate one," Meccage said. "'This worked for me today, this didn't.' That kind of stuff. We ended up with a pretty good routine. It was all about being consistent and just talking through everything with him."
The result: a day-of-game procedure that read like a checklist. Take a 30-minute nap. Wake up 15 minutes before getting ready. Meet with the coaches. Head to the training room. Stretch. Start throwing in the bullpen. Start throwing to batters in the bullpen. Start pitching.
The second thing that Meccage stressed was to take a walk or a pitched ball in stride. He could see a single free pass snowballing when it came to Glasnow's mentality, and he dug into history to pull the right-hander out of the funk. In particular, he showed Glasnow the walk totals of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. While coming up through the Mets system from 1965-67, the 6-foot-2 right-hander issued 6.2 walks per nine across five levels, a figure lower than Glasnow's 4.7 in his first two seasons.
"That seemed to ease his mind on strikes a little," Meccage said. "He was really surprised at those walks early in Ryan's career, and being that he's the same kind of power-type pitcher, it got him to understand a little that a ball or a walk isn't the end of the world."
Before you get too caught up in a one-to-one assessment, even Glasnow knows any comparison to Ryan, the Majors' all-time strikeout leader with 5,714 career K's, is beyond a dream.
"I mean, to compare myself to Nolan Ryan is something I'd never do," he said. "But it was cool to see that he had been going through the same control problems. Lots of great big leaguers had trouble with it. It's nothing I'm really worried about in terms of my development, and I can feel a big difference as far as that goes. A couple more years, it'll work itself out."
Glasnow didn't have to wait quite that long to start seeing results in the FSL. Both he and Meccage brought up a May 28 game at Tampa as a turning point. The right-hander struck out a season-high 12 and allowed only one hit and two walks over 5 2/3 frames in an afternoon contest that day to start a stretch of four straight scoreless starts (21 2/3 innings).
From that point forward, he allowed more than two earned runs in only two of his 18 remaining starts (101 1/3 innings). In that span, he went 12-2 with a 1.33 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 139 strikeouts (12.3 K/9) and only 37 walks (3.3 BB/9).
For the season, he finished 12-5 with a 1.74 ERA (third-best among qualifying full-season Minor Leaguers), 157 strikeouts (tied for eighth-most, despite missing a month) and a 1.05 WHIP. Those numbers earned him the FSL's Most Valuable Pitcher award, and the award that led to this feature.
Those numbers were also good enough to earn a promotion to Double-A Altoona. That didn't come for two reasons: 1) Bradenton was in a second-half division race, while Altoona was well out of the Eastern League playoff picture. (He eventually suffered the Game 1 loss to eventual champion Fort Myers in the FSL semifinals.) 2) There was a wink and a nod that he'd head to the prospect-filled Arizona Fall League at the end of the season to make up for his lost innings from back in April. It was that last bit that sold Glasnow.
"I thought about it, like anyone would," he said. "But being in the playoff race and knowing I'd probably come back down to pitch in the playoffs anyways, that helped. I was definitely excited that I might to go to the Fall League."
The Bucs did send him to Scottsdale as part of their AFL contingent. Like his regular season in miniature, Glasnow walked three over two-thirds of an inning in his first start but rebounded with a pair of stellar three-inning outings. Through three starts, he's allowed one run on six hits and five walks and struck out seven over 6 2/3 innings against lineups containing top prospects such as Dalton Pompey, Addison Russell, Daniel Robertson and Raul Mondesi.
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When he was standing 6-foot-7, well short of 200 pounds, Glasnow was little more than a lottery ticket. Despite their advantage, not all 6-foot-7 hurlers exactly shake out.
"It's tough for me to say because I'm not nearly that tall," Allen said, "but pitching is a demanding thing. It's a heavy workload. For taller guys, sometimes they can't repeat their delivery, and that's when you start to see them break down. You have to be athletic, like [Glasnow] is."
That's what Allen saw when he did his due diligence back in 2011, and three years later, it looks like Glasnow's ticket might hit. When that happens, there will be a few Southern California area scouts who wish they would have stayed just a little bit longer at his Hart High starts.