by Judd Hoekstra & Rick Peterson
The following is an excerpt from Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most, being released on January 23, 2017.
More than most endeavors in life, baseball is riddled with failure. Hitters are considered great if they get a hit just three times out of ten. The baseball box score serves as a daily performance report, highlighting the successes and failures of every player. In the case of major leaguers, their failures are on display publicly to fans in the thousands and sometimes millions.
While all baseball players know no one succeeds all of the time, the best players have figured out how to respond to the inevitable failures in a way that makes them better.
Tom Glavine pitched 16 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, winning a total of 244 games, including 5 seasons of 20 wins or more (the gold standard for a starting pitcher) and 2 seasons in which he won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the National League. At the rate he was winning, Glavine looked like a sure thing to surpass 300 wins and earn his place in the baseball Hall of Fame.
At the end of the 2002 season, Glavine’s contract with Atlanta was up. Glavine surprised many in baseball by leaving the only professional team he’d ever played for and signing with the New York Mets. He signed a three-year contract for $35 million, with an option for a fourth year that could make the deal worth $42.5 million.
It would be an understatement to say expectations in New York were high. These expectations came from many sources—the team, the New York fans and media, and Glavine himself.
Baseball analysts projected Glavine would reach the magic 300 win total as a Met sometime during the 2006 season and lift the Mets to glory in the process. Then, a not-so-funny thing happened on Glavine’s road to the Hall of Fame. He struggled.
In 2003, Glavine finished the season with 9 wins and 14 losses. This was the first time since his rookie season he hadn’t won at least 10 games. Had he lost his skills? No. Was he buckling under the pressure of playing in New York? No. The game had changed.
Major League Baseball introduced the QuesTec Umpire Information System. QuesTec is a pitch-tracking technology used to evaluate the performance of home plate umpires. It keeps track of how many correct and incorrect ball and strike calls an umpire has during a game.
While he was in Atlanta, Glavine had thrived for years with one approach—pitch to the outside part of the plate, preferably off the plate, to get hitters to chase pitches outside the strike zone. Because of the success and reputation he’d earned in Atlanta, umpires often called pitches that were just off the outside edge of home plate a strike for Glavine. Now that the umpires were being evaluated more objectively, they stopped giving Glavine that strike and started calling a pitch in the same location a ball.(1,2)
This meant Glavine’s game plan to get hitters to chase his pitch off the plate no longer worked.
As Glavine put the tough 2003 season behind him and prepared for a turnaround season in 2004, Rick Peterson made a huge decision to leave the Oakland A’s. Despite the great success of the A’s pitching staff and the team, Rick wanted to move back to the East Coast so he could be a bigger part of his sons’ lives. The New York Mets hired Rick as their new pitching coach.
Glavine started the 2004 season like the pitcher he was during his years in Atlanta. He was superb. He made his ninth All-Star team that July. Unfortunately, disaster struck Glavine—literally—in early August. He was involved in a crash while riding in the back of a cab on the way to Shea Stadium. He tried to return to pitching too soon after the injury and pitched poorly. More than ever, Glavine’s career-long quest for 300 career wins now looked like it was in jeopardy.
The 2005 season began the same way 2004 finished, with Glavine struggling mightily. To add to the pressure, the New York media called the free agent signing of Glavine a big mistake. One radio talk show host wondered if the driver who had hit Glavine’s cab the year before could be found to hit him again.(3)
On a June road trip to the West Coast, Glavine’s pitching hit rock bottom. He faced the Seattle Mariners and gave up six runs in less than three innings. For the season, Glavine had just four wins against seven losses and had given up a dismal average of more than five earned runs per game.
It was eating Glavine alive to pitch so poorly. He wasn’t the only one. Rick agonized as well. Rick had so much respect for Glavine as both a pitcher and a person.
Glavine was used to no longer getting the pitch off the outside corner of the plate called a strike because of the QuesTec Umpire Information System. The problem was he hadn’t figured out how to adjust.
On the long plane ride home from Seattle, Rick decided it was the right time to challenge Glavine to change. He was not going to ask Glavine to make a small change. He was about to ask him to blow up the way he had pitched for 18 years and try something he had never done as a pro. Not an easy conversation.
Rick knew the recipient of feedback and change often feels threatened. He knew he needed to reframe the conversation as an opportunity for Glavine to get back on track in his quest for 300 wins.
Rick got up out of his seat near the front of the plane, ordered a couple beers from the flight attendant, and walked to the back of the plane where Glavine was sitting. He slid into the empty seat next to Glavine and cracked open the beers. Knowing Glavine was an avid golfer, Rick decided to use a golf analogy. He asked, “Tommy, how many clubs are you allowed to have in your golf bag?”
Understandably so, Glavine wasn’t in a great mood, but he respected Rick enough to play along. “Fourteen,” Glavine answered.
Rick responded, “Right, and right now you’re only using two of the clubs in your bag—fastball outside and change up outside. Every team in the league has the same scouting report on you: lay off the pitch off the outside edge of the plate; wait for you to pitch over the plate, and then take the ball to the opposite field or up the middle. They’re sitting on your pitches. You were successful in the past by keeping guys off balance. No one is off balance right now.”
Glavine could be bitter about what he was hearing or he could learn from it. He couldn’t argue with what Rick was saying, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it to get better.
Rick shared his idea: “You’ve got to start using the other clubs in your bag. You have to start pitching inside!”
Glavine looked at Rick in disbelief. “Pitch inside? Me?” For a non-power pitcher like Glavine, pitching inside was risky. If a hitter is ready for an inside pitch, he’s likely to crush it for a home run.
The two men talked further about when to pitch inside and with what pitches, and when to go back to the outside of the plate. At the end of the conversation, Glavine thought, “I can’t pitch any worse. Why not try it?”
The new Glavine pitched in Yankee Stadium a few nights later. He pitched both inside and outside. Yankees manager Joe Torre remembered, “He was a different guy completely. I was tempted to check his uniform number to make sure it was Tom.”(4) Glavine won the game, pitching as well as he had all season.
After the game, Glavine said, “They knew I was willing to come inside, but they didn’t know when I was going to come inside. It was like the old days; I had them chasing again.”
Glavine’s turnaround was extraordinary. Following his conversation on the plane with Rick, Glavine gave up an average of half as many earned runs per game for the remainder of the season. From 2005–2007, Glavine won 41 games, winning his 300th game on August 5, 2007. On July 27, 2014, Glavine was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. During his induction speech, Glavine recognized Rick for the help he provided.(5)
“Rick Peterson, later in my career with the Mets, you helped me to reinvent myself and make the changes I needed to make for the latter part of my career. Trust me, when you’re doing something for 16 or 17 years, it’s not an easy thing to change. But you talked me into it, you convinced me of it, and you gave me confidence to do it. Rick Peterson, thanks so much for your help.”
Like all of us, Glavine encountered adversity. He received feedback that his performance wasn’t up to his own standards or the standards of others. Like us, he had to ask himself: Am I going to be bitter about the feedback I’m receiving or am I going to learn from it and act on it to get better? What opportunity might I miss if I choose to disregard this feedback?
- John Feinstein, interview by author, telephone, February 24, 2014.
- John Feinstein, Living on the Black (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
- MLB.com, Video, MLB Network, “Glavine Inducted into HOF,” July 27, 2014, http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/6003532/ v34856591/glavine-is-inducted-into-the-baseball-hall-of-fame.