Giolitoís Honor

November 3, 2017

 

 

Last year I wrote about the intriguing talent of Joey Gallo. I had his next 425 at bats in the majors at .220/.290/.470 with 25 homers and 75-80 RBI. His career zone contact rate was a historically low 58.3% so I was skeptical he would make enough contact for his tremendous power to impact the game. There was a better than average chance he would go the way of so many all-or-nothing sluggers who faded into obscurity. In order to avoid that fate he would need to improve this contact rate by more than 10% just to make as much contact as most pitchers do, much less the worst everyday hitters in history. However, he did exactly that, coming in at a Russ Branyan-esque 71.6%. It was an astounding improvement. As a result, his first career 582 at bats have yielded a .201/.321/.498 line with 48 homers and 95 RBI. He easily surpassed my expectations for both getting on base, but especially slugging. He might not hit for their average, but Gallo going forward is a much more dangerous hitter than Branyan, Chris Davis, Chris Carter and Jack Cust, the primary ideal players to which I compared him. Carter didnít have his first 40+ homer season until he was 29. Davis didnít have his until he was 27. Gallo is not even 24 and just had his first. Honestly, I donít know where he goes from here but my Ďwhat-ifí comparison to Mike Schmidt does not sound nearly as crazy as it did a year ago.

 

This yearís victim is Lucas Giolito. This wonít be nearly as comprehensive a study because frankly Giolito is not nearly as unique as Gallo and as such doesnít warrant a Fugitive-style manhunt for comparable players.

 

That said, there is a wide range of opinion on how Giolitoís talent will eventually shake out at the major league level. When he was in high school he was viewed almost unanimously as the next Roger Clemens, with a fastball that touched 100 mph plus a hammer curve. There was a consensus among scouting observers that he could have been the first high school right-hander to warrant the first overall pick in the amateur draft. But then he developed arm problems which resulted in Tommy John surgery and his star fell. Still, even after the Nats drafted him he was viewed by most as a future #1 ace. Then holes in his game started showing up as the Nats minor league instructors started tinkering with his mechanics in an effort to reduce stress on his arm and to quicken his delivery home so he wouldnít be victimized by basestealers. By the time they traded him to the White Sox in a package to acquire Adam Eaton - a trade that probably would not have been made straight up a year earlier Ė Nats evaluators saw him as no more than a #2 or #3 starter at best.††

 

Throughout his minor league career heís put up ace-level strikeout rates and displayed decent control when it comes to walks but one of the things that minor league numbers canít show (notice I said ďcanítĒ and not ďdonítĒ) is the ability to command the fastball on both sides of the plate. Thatís because minor league hitters swing at a lot more borderline pitches than major league hitters do. Because they swing more often, minor league pitchers often issue fewer walks than they would if they were pitching in the majors. Also because minor league hitters swing a lot, they also make contact with pitches they canít handle, thus getting themselves out. Major league hitters donít do that as much. The other thing minor league hitters do is that they miss more mistake pitches. Major league hitters rarely do that.

 

OK so back to Giolito. So he was drafted as a future ace because of his size and velocity, but the velocity hasnít played as ace-level since his return from Tommy John surgery (more on that in a second) and the size thing can actually work against a pitching prospect. Big guys tend to struggle more with mechanics, especially as they fill out. Maintaining the necessary consistency with the kinetic chain and the release points to navigate a major league line-up can be as tricky as the line-up itself. The velocity drop can also be affected by the frequency of mound appearances. In high school, starting pitchers start a game once per week. This holds true in college as well. Once they reach the professional ranks, they pitch every five days. Less rest between starts affects many things, including velocity.

 

One of the things that makes Giolito so intriguing going into 2018 is the way he finished this past season. And it wasnít just with his promotion. It began back in July in Triple-A. From his start on July 25 until his final start of the season, Giolito threw 77 innings with an ERA of 2.104 and a WHIP of 1.026 with 7.25 K/9. Of that, 45.3 innings took place in the majors, with a 2.38 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. What makes this more exciting is that his home run-to-flyball rate, which league average is about 10 to 1, was 17.8 to 1, which indicates that all things being equal, his ERA was slightly inflated due to a higher than normal home run rate. And while his strikeout rate was a rather pedestrian 6.75 per game with Chicago, four of those seven starts came against Kansas City (twice), Houston and San Francisco, three of the six toughest teams to strike out. So his K rate was likely depressed.

 

Now the bad news: his BABIP was .189 and the strand rate was 92%, both completely unsustainable. Major league average for BABIP is around .300 and strand rates consistently hover around 75%. In fact, if his performance was put into a league average environment, his WHIP would have been closer to 1.324 and his ERA would have been closer to 4.50, something similar to Felix Hernandezí 2017 season. Also, because his home run rate is high, if he regresses to league average on balls in play, those home runs will do much more damage with many more men on base. Even in the minors his home run rate was elevated so even with a rate nearly twice the major league average itís very possible it will remain on the high side. Surprisingly, the White Sox were one of the best in the majors last year at turning batted balls into outs, so thereís still reasonable hope that his BABIP will remain below league average, which would mitigate the damage but itís unlikely that his current level of performance can be maintained.

 

Add it all up: 1) his spectacular ERA was unsupported by his peripherals, 2) he has average velocity and other than a decent change-up 3) doesnít appear to have a pitch to keep hitters honestÖ he will likely be highly over-hyped and over-valued going into 2018.

 

But there is some light in his future. His pitching coach is Don Cooper, who has done more with less than just about any pitching coach alive. He turned a lefty who many thought was destined for the bullpen into one of the two or three best pitchers of his generation (Chris Sale). Sale began his White Sox career as a reliever but was moved into the rotation at about the same age Giolito was last year. His average velocity that first year as a starter was 91.6; Giolitoís was 92.1. By the time Sale was traded to Boston five years later his average velocity had ticked up to 94.4. Iím not saying that Cooper works that kind of magic on every pitcher because he doesnít, but if anyone can, itís him.

 

Iíve heard comparisons to Jon Garland (from his pitching coach Don Cooper, no less) and Ivan Nova (from scouting observers), but Garland never had Giolitoís velocity and Nova never had Giolitoís strikeout pedigree in the minors. When I saw him pitch most recently this summer, his delivery reminded me of someone but I couldnít put my finger on who it was. Then today it dawned on me: Phil Hughes. Hughes has roughly the same size, same velocity, same kind of stutter in his movement toward the plate (although Giolito has more of a toe tap) and same kind of strikeout and walk results in the minors. Giolitoís fastball is also pretty straight, like Hughesí.Hughes and Giolito also share the same zone contact rate (a little more than 88%) and roughly the same swinging strike rate (a little better than 8%). Working in Giolitoís favor is that he induces more groundballs.Thatís not a bad pitcher to have. It will make for a fine career; just not a legendary one.