Ace, ascendant: Lucas Giolito was easily the best pitcher on the White Sox staff in 2019. Will he get help going forward? (@whitesox)
“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:
- Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
- Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
- Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
- Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
- Free agent options at that position
This article delves into the career of Lucas Giolito through 2018, his 2019 season with the White Sox, and what his future looks like with the team.
How did he get here?
Giolito, a native of Santa Monica, had an outstanding senior year with Harvard-Westlake High School (Studio City, Calif.) when he posted a 9-1 record in 70 1/3 innings before being sidelined in March due to a sprained ligament in his right elbow. After several of the top doctors in the area gave his elbow’s health a thumbs-up, Giolito was selected by the Washington Nationals with the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft.
The Nationals handled Giolito cautiously that year, as he only pitched two innings for their Gulf Coast squad. The following year, he combined for 11 games and 36 2/3 innings with the GCL and New York-Penn League affiliates. In those innings, Giolito posted a splendid 1.96 ERA and 1.15 WHIP by surrendering just 28 hits (.217 OBA) and 14 walks (9.5%) while striking out 39 (26.5%).
In 2014, Giolito’s stock really escalated. In 20 starts totaling 98 innings, he posted a sensational 10-2 record, 2.20 ERA and 1.00 WHIP for the Nationals “A” team in Hagerstown over 98 inning,s as he ceded 70 hits (.197 OBA) and 28 walks (7.3%) while fanning 110 (28.5%).
The next year saw him spend time with A+ Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, and his results were still quite good if not quite as terrific — quite understandable when considering he was pitching against hitters that were usually about three years older. In 2015, Giolito combined with those squads to post a 7-7 record, 3.15 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 117 innings as he surrendered 113 hits (.253 OBA) and 37 walks (7.5%) while striking out 131 (26.5%).
The 2016 season was quite full for Giolito, as he pitched for Hagerstown, Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. In 22 starts totaling 115 1/3 innings, he combined with those three teams to produce a 2.97 ERA and 1.28 WHIP by allowing 104 hits (.239 OBA), 44 walks (9.0%) and 116 strikeouts (23.8%). He then earned his first MLB promotion, but struggled for the Nationals in six appearances spanning 21 1/3 innings as he surrendered 26 hits (.295 OBA) and 12 walks (11.9%) while fanning just 11 (10.9%). With Giolito’s struggles for the playoff-bound Nationals, and the fact that their pitching staff was already loaded, he became expendable and was traded along with pitchers Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning for outfielder Adam Eaton after the season.
Giolito, who was considered an overall Top 20 prospect at the time of the trade, had an uneven season for the Charlotte Knights in 2017, as he struggled with both command and control. In 24 starts spanning 128 2/3 innings, Giolito posted a 4.48 ERA and 1.41 WHIP by relinquishing 122 hits (.253 OBA), 59 walks (10.7%) and 134 strikeouts (24.3%). However, he showed significant improvement (including a no-hitter against his former team, Syracuse) as the season progressed, which ultimately landed him a promotion to Chicago by late August. In seven starts for the White Sox totaling 45 1/3 innings, Giolito produced an outstanding 2.38 ERA and 0.95 WHIP by allowing just 31 hits (.190 OBA) and 12 walks (6.7%) while striking out 34 (19.0%).
Giolito suffered through easily his worst year as a professional last year with the White Sox, as he struggled immensely with both his command and control. In particular, he had difficulty avoiding the big inning. In 32 starts totaling 173 1/3 innings, he compiled an ugly 6.13 ERA and 1.48 WHIP by relinquishing 166 hits (.250 OBA) and 90 walks (11.6%) while fanning just 125 (16.1%). Giolito’s 90 walks and 118 earned runs were both league worsts. On the positive side, his FIP was only 5.56 so it appears that a little bad luck combined with his poor control contributed to his troubles.
With the White Sox in 2019
Despite exiting the 2019 season a couple weeks early due to a lat strain, Giolito not only enjoyed a terrific bounce-back, but was one of the best righthanders in the majors. In 29 starts totaling 176 2/3 innings, he posted a 14-9 record with a 3.41 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, as he surrendered just 131 hits (.205 OBA) and 57 walks (8.1%) compared to 229 strikeouts (32.5%). The biggest damage to his stat line was that he had a professional career-worst 36.0% ground ball rate, which largely led to his 24 homers allowed. That blemish aside, Giolito’s year was off-the-charts, and he was easily the league’s most improved pitcher.
What were the major factors for his improvement? Overhauled pitching mechanics, offseason work on the mental aspect of the game, a sinker that’s been mothballed in favor of more four-seamers, and increased use of his changeup, particularly against lefties — there is no shortage of factors that have contributed to Giolito’s turnaround. Giolito gets ahead of hitters far more often, gets them to chase outside the zone more often, and his strikeout rate practically doubled, from 16.1% to 32.1% while his walk rate fell from 11.6% to 8.3%. Despite Giolito’s fairly high homer total, he still managed to cut his homer rate from 1.4/9 innings to 1.08. Even while becoming a fly ball-oriented pitcher, he’s cut his homer rate from 1.4 per nine to 1.08. It all adds up to one of the most impressive turnarounds of any pitcher in recent memory.
As mentioned above, Giolito increased the usage of his four-seam fastball from 39% to 55% while he didn’t throw his sinker at all in 2019 (he threw it 20.5% of the time in 2018). Off his four-seamer, hitters slashed just .203/281/.364, which was a major improvement from the year before (.274/.412/.524). Losing his sinker was a great career move, as hitters slugged .445 against it last year. Giolito increased his changeup usage from 15.7% in 2018 to 26.2%, and hitters slashed just .190/.270/.360 against it this year. He used the slider 14.7% of the time this year, a nearly identical rate from last year; opponents slashed just .213/.251/.362 against it this year. Finally, which comes as a surprise to many since the pitch was graded 70 by MLB Pipeline when he was still a prospect, Giolito’s curveball usage fell from 10.1% to 4.1% and with good reason — hitters rocked that pitch this year to the tune of a .318/.426/.682 slash line. According to Baseball Savant, Giolito’s four-seamer averaged 94.2 mph, with obviously lower speeds on his slider (84.6), changeup (81.7) and curveball (79.4%).
Giolito posted a 5.1 fWAR for the year. Considering each fWAR is worth approximately $7.7 million free agent dollars per FanGraphs, when measured against his 2019 salary of $573,000, Giolito produced a whopping net value of nearly $38.7 million. Giolito won’t be eligible for arbitration until the end of the 2021 season.
What does the future have in store?
It’s hard to believe, but Giolito won’t even turn 26 until next July, and he won’t be eligible to become a free agent until the 2024 season. While there’s no rush to give Giolito an extension quite yet, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to consider if he repeats his performance next year. The lat strain, which caused a premature end to this season, would typically put someone on the shelf for just three or four weeks during the season, so Giolito’s injury shouldn’t have any effect on him next year.
As for 2020 and beyond, Giolito could be part of a young mix that includes some combination of López, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Carlos Rodón, Dunning and Jonathan Stiever just to name a few. Giolito is the only one with any viable track record of production, experience and durability — all the other aforementioned pitchers have either battled inexperience, inconsistency, or injuries.
Of course, Giolito only has one full season of success to date, but he’s easily the staff ace. Of course, this doesn’t even include the possibilities of adding a starter or two via free agency if the White Sox decide to finally open their pocketbooks for premier hurlers. Later Deep Dives will delve into right-handed and southpaw rotation options available in this year’s free agent class.