A ‘Lito Bit of Love

It felt like baseball gave up on Lucas Giolito. Look at him now.

Tuesday night, in front of an audience of 1,500 cardboard cut-outs purchased for $49 a pop, and buoyed by a backing track of gently-but-appropriately piped-in crowd murmurs and synthpop, Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito threw the first no-hitter of the Major League Baseball season. He got it on 101 pitches and by surrendering just one walk, with the 27th out – a stiff line-drive from Pirates shortstop Erick Gonzalez to well-positioned right fielder Adam Engel – perhaps being the hairiest.

Over the past two seasons, Lucas Giolito has become the unquestioned ace of the White Sox rotation, and a pitcher who has rather rapidly elevated himself into the upper echelon of league starters (PitcherList recently ranked him 24th on our weekly edition of The List). And for a player with the pedigree that Giolito had coming into the league, perhaps this was expected. Indeed, go back to before the 2016 season and tell someone that, by 2020, Giolito will be a staff ace on a competitive team, and they’d likely nod their head and grunt accordingly. It was to be expected (and maybe give them a heads-up about what they have to look forward to with the rest of 2020 while you’re at it).

Having been MLB’s top-ranked organizational pitching prospect prior to the 2016 season, Giolito had all of the hype and high-regard in the world. A competitive Nationals team held him aloft as the future of the franchise, and – along with then-18 year old Juan Soto – he was regarded as an untouchable franchise cornerstone.

By the same time next season, Giolito would be on a different franchise altogether, and found himself shuttled down most prospect rankings lists. As a White Sox prospect, Giolito had to rediscover his form, and rebuild much of the stuff that made him one of the most highly-regarded young pitchers in the game. So the question, understandably, becomes: what happened, then, and what’s happening now?

Two days in December of 2016 were supposed to be the days that ‘made’ the Chicago White Sox for a decade to come. On December 6th, the White Sox dealt their franchise cornerstone and perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale to Boston for a package that include consensus MLB number-one prospect Yoan Moncada. The deal was seen as a necessity, and as a comparatively respectable return for the player who was at the top of virtually every contender’s Winter Meetings wish-list.

But it was the move on the next day, one could argue, that White Sox GM Rick Hahn pulled off his biggest coup. Having floated lead-off stud and everyday producer Adam Eaton on the trade market over the course of the meetings, Hahn reeled in a bigmouth billy bass of a-return from the Washington Nationals, which included first-round draft pick Dane Dunning, and up-and coming fireballer Reynaldo Lopez. But it was Giolito who was the cornerstone return in the deal, and the player that the baseball world was stunned to see the Nationals surrendering.

Indeed, Giolito had made his long-awaited debut with the Nationals in the summer and fall of 2016, and the 22-year old did so under the spectre of previous Nationals star debutants (none of whom loom larger than Stephen Strasburg). There was much hope that Giolito could be the missing piece in the rotation that would put the perennially-underperforming Nats over the hump come October.

Instead, as normal 22-year olds are oft to do, Giolito struggled. A four-inning shut-out in his debut did not portend greater things as the year progressed. He limped to an unpleasant 6.75 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, and 8.21 FIP over 21.1 innings of work. The underlying metrics spoke to mechanical issues – a heavy reliance on an underwhelming fastball (nearly-70% usage of the pitch, which averaged 94.2mph) which hitters feasted on (.355 Opponent BA) and some issues adjusting to headier competition. He went into the off-season saying all the right things – that he was focused on mechanics and would work with the Nats pitching staff on reducing body movement and pitch-tipping- and his pedigree allowed for some semblance of the benefit of a doubt from Nats fans.

He wouldn’t get that next season in the nation’s capital, however, as his trade to the Southside of Chicago (in what, with respect to Adam Eaton, should be regarded as a ’sell-low’ trade on the Nationals’ part) brought him into the clutches of the White Sox staff, who looked to rehabilitate him into the star he seemed destined to be.

A respectable 2017 showing in terms of counting stats (3-3, 2.38ERA, 0.95WHIP) belied weaker underlying metrics (4.94 FIP, 2.8:1 K:BB ratio, 92.0% LOB). Such numbers had, in all likelihood, been buoyed by starts against weaker, non-playoff competition later in the year (2 starts against KC, 1 against TOR, TB, SFG). He entered his age-24 season in 2018 in the White Sox starting rotation – and he capital-S STRUGGLED. Over the course of 173 innings pitched on the year, Giolito seemed absolutely out of his depth. He posted a 6.13 ERA on the year, which was as high as 7.19 in late June. He issued an AL-leading 90 walks, and struck out barely more than that (125). He had only 1 start in which he didn’t allow an earned run, and by the end of the season, the bloom seemed completely off of the rose.

But, amidst all of that scorched earth, a different flower was blossoming.

Giolito and the White Sox pitching staff experimented with his changeup, a pitch which had served as the primary usage compliment to his fastball – but which had struggled to get swings. They tweaked the movement on the pitch, and Giolito began to see results: in the second half of 2018, opposing hitters went just .156 on the pitch. His counting stats may not have righted all that much, but there was hope that his mechanics might finally match his potential.

In the 2018-19 off-season, Giolito talked about working on the mental side of the game, alongside shortening his arm swing and bringing more deception into his pitches. This would all seem for naught when he posted a 5.30 ERA in his first four starts of the season, and was lifted relatively early in an April 17th start for injury precautions. But he came back in early-May, and the transformation was underway. From that point-forward, Giolito evolved into everything baseball observers had hoped he would be from the moment he was drafted in 2012. He went from an historically bad K:BB rate, to a top-shelf one. He brought his changeup usage up to 26.2% and achieve a whiff rate of 22.1% on it. This helped his fastball become a more effective tool, and he began to miss bats with both pitches. The most striking element of the new Giolito was his delivery – a distinctive hidden hand that is buffeted by arm movement as short as a penguin’s flapping wing. It made his stuff impossible to pick-up

Compare that to his languid, extended arm motion from just the year prior (on what, admittedly, is an excellent pitch):

Baseball is a funny sport that way. The minutiae of something like arm socket release position and angle of pitch slope can be the difference between hand-wringing, 30-year old Double-A bust, and no-hitter throwing staff ace. But such is life in the Bigs, and to Giolito and the White Sox credit, the adjustment worked. With the exception of a brief blip in July, he was nigh-unhittable throughout the 2019 season. His K% rose astronomically to 32.3% (good for 4th among eligible starters), while his BB% fell to 8.1%. Opponent BA dropped to .203 and – perhaps more importantly – opponent SLG% fell into a crater.

This all brings us to Tuesday night, and his magical moment at a cavernous Guaranteed Rate Field. 2020 has been a mostly-meh season for Giolito thusfar: a disastrous Opening Day start (7 ER in 3.2 IP against the Twins) can perhaps be forgiven as a matter of shaking off the rust, and he has mostly recovered as we reach the midway point of the season (yes, we’re somehow at the midway point of the season already). His start previous to Tuesday’s had been his best on the year thusfar – 0 ERA, 3 hits and 7 K’s in 7 IP against the Tigers. His pitch usage has become even more heavily reliant on his fastball and changeup – 50.5% and 34.9% usage respectively – and he is garnering tremendous whiff rates from the opposition. Indeed, on Tuesday night, the milquetoast Pirates offence whiffed 41% of the time against his fastball, 56.5% of the time against his changeup, and a lip-smacking 72.7% of the time against his knee-buckling slider. 13 strikeouts again, and only one walk. Of course, when you watch the reel, you’ll see that there were a handful of balls that the Pirates got a decent hold of – with none more precarious than the 27th out. But sometimes, as they say, you need luck to be good. Or if you’re good, the luck will come. Or something like that.


In my experience, there aren’t many times when the phalanx of baseball scouts and video-watchers that document every single pitch a prospect makes from the age of majority will all simply get it wrong. Perhaps that’s why I – along with many well-heeled, good-things-come-to-those-who-wait-and-wait-types – were a bit baffled by the Nats’ decision to deal him at 22, and by his three subsequent years of struggle. And, hey – it’s not like you can speak ill of the Nats’ decision-making. What you can do, however, is think back on Lucas Giolito the next time you see a top-shelf prospect struggle in his first cuts at big league competition. Maybe he just needs more time and nurturing than usual to spread his wings.

Or, as was Giolito’s case, maybe he’d benefit from a little clipping of those selfsame wings.


Daniel MacDonald

Daniel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (2014), and has carried his love of baseball drama and storytelling across oceans and continents. He remembers exactly where he was sitting and what he was wearing when Kerry Wood struck out 20. You can find him talking baseball and music on Twitter @danthemacs

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