Last year, right around this time, I wrote about how some notable White Sox players performed in April. When I wrote the article, I figured it would be best to get the negative thoughts about the first month of the 2018 season out of the way before mentioning the positive thoughts. With this in mind, Lucas Giolito was immediately the first name that came to mind. My first sentence about Giolito read: “To say this has been a brutal start to the 2018 season for Lucas Giolito is an extreme understatement.”
I went on to cite alarming statistics that didn’t exactly make me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside about Giolito’s immediate future. At the time of that writing, his walk rate and strikeout rate for 2018 were 17.1% and 8.9%, respectively. Read that again. I didn’t switch those numbers on accident. That’s worse than bad. Like, I wouldn’t be doing my duty as a writer if I didn’t assign an appropriate adjective to how bad that is. I’m just going to go with “dreadful”.
As someone who certainly doesn’t claim to be a pitching expert, I mentioned what I subjectively thought might be the cause of Giolito’s issues, and it mostly lined up with other fans’ opinions. At the time, his fastball velocity had dipped to 90-92 miles per hour, which would have been fine if his fastball had any movement (spoiler: it went very straight). I also mentioned that Giolito had tremendous problems with locating his pitches effectively. Fans had speculated that it may have been a result of some combination of a mechanics-related issue, a lack of composure, or the cold April weather. Regardless, I think I’ve made my point: at this point last season, he was arguably the worst starting pitcher in all of Major League Baseball.
Alright, the bad part is out of the way. What about this season?
Well, it’s very early, and Giolito is only 7 starts and 38.0 innings into the season, but we’ve already seen some dramatic changes from him.
If you had spoken to fans about his mechanics last season, you might’ve heard responses such as “too many moving parts” or “out of control”. He came into the 2019 season with many mechanical changes, mostly stemming from the idea that he seemingly wanted to make everything more compact in his delivery. He’s keeping the ball and his throwing arm closer to his body throughout his delivery, and it looks much more stable in my opinion. This, among other minor mechanical changes, has positively affected his ability to locate his pitches. Again, I’m not a pitching expert, but I don’t think you need to be an expert to see the major differences.
Giolito’s fastball has seen an 8% increase in spin rate (which doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it doesn’t go straight anymore), it’s topping out at 95+ miles per hour, and there’s noticeably improved command. It has paired nicely with the awesome change-up he’s featuring much more frequently this season. The change-up is even being used as an occasional put-away pitch for him, as he’s throwing it significantly more often with two strikes this season (25.5% in 2019 from 15.1% in 2018). It has even drawn attention from Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja on Twitter) several times throughout the season, and alongside his nasty breaking pitches, the improved fastball and change-up sum up to a very well-rounded arsenal.
The glaring change from last season, especially because of the effectiveness of his new-look pitch repertoire, is that Lucas Giolito’s strikeout rate is WAY up (29.5% in 2019 from 16.1% in 2018). He’s creating more swings-and-misses on all his pitches, and he’s getting ahead of hitters much more frequently because of it. This obviously has allowed him to pitch more efficiently and go deeper into games. In fact, he’s averaging only 14.4 pitches per inning this season, compared to 17.3 pitches per inning last season. That adds about an extra full inning to a typical start. Not too shabby if you ask me.
All this success may be a combination of the mechanics change and working with new battery mate James McCann, who Giolito feels has had a significant impact on his comfort, confidence, and execution.
That’s all fine and dandy. However, it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a significant improvement made in the contact being made against him. So far in 2019, Giolito has allowed many more line drives than in the past, and they’ve also been hit hard (97.3 miles per hour on average, which is top 10% of the league this season). He’s been fortunate to have had those hard-hit liners go right at defenders, and his fate may have been a little less likable if those had fallen in for hits, but what about his overall contact profile?
On plate appearances that did not result in a strikeout, Giolito allowed a .418 xwOBA in 2018 and has allowed a .424 xwOBA in 2019 (xwOBA attempts to estimate what a batter’s offensive output should be based on quality of contact, while ignoring actual box score results).
It’s not that a .424 xwOBA excluding strikeouts is necessarily bad (it puts him right around the MLB median). It’s just that there isn’t a clear improvement in his overall contact profile. In other words, this sudden breakout has almost completely been fueled by swinging strikes and strikeouts, and his success has not come from limiting walks or generating weaker contact relative to past seasons. Again, not a bad thing…if he can continue to keep the strikeouts up.
I said all of that to say this: there’s a lot to like about the 2019 version of Lucas Giolito, and he looks like a totally different pitcher this season. He’s always had the stuff to compete at the MLB level, but many of the missing pieces (mechanics, command, confidence, comfort) seemed to have fallen into place for him so far this season. The drastic increase in his strikeout rate is what’s keeping his numbers looking nice and it’s only May 13, so I need to see much more of this before I’m fully convinced that he’s a true ace, but I think we’re thankfully able to safely say he’s improved from last season.
Follow Dom on Twitter (@WhiteSoxDom) for more White Sox news and opinion