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Lucas Giolito, Who Was The Worst Starter In Baseball, Is Now An Ace

When you know a secret.
Photo: Jonathan Daniel (Getty Images)

It only feels like every strange or new thing that could happen in baseball has already happened. Lucas Giolito, who is currently pitching better than just about any starting pitcher in baseball a year after pitching worse than every other starting pitcher in baseball, is not remotely the first such pitcher to make that kind of big, career-changing improvement. Very few of the best pitchers arrive as anything like the aces they’ll become, and part of the fun of knowing this is watching them become themselves, either little by little or all at once. It has been and will likely remain easy to miss amid another inconsequential season for the White Sox, but it is happening for Giolito right now. And for all the examples of pitchers abruptly growing into their immense talent, it’s tough to think of any pitcher in recent memory that has gotten better, faster, than Giolito.

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The White Sox are at a stage in their long overhaul at which things are supposed to start happening. The assets are going to have to become actual players, and the projections are going to have to become results. And while the team is not yet good, exactly, you can see how it might be. Shortstop Tim Anderson was an out-machine that periodically set off fireworks for two frustrating seasons, and now looks for all the world like an important-to-the-future-of-the-game star. Yoan Moncada, the centerpiece of the team’s return in the deal that sent Chris Sale to Boston, struck out more than any player in baseball last season while slugging an even .400. This year he ... is still striking out a lot, actually, but his OPS has improved nearly 140 points. This is all good.

But for the White Sox to really break through and become the team they might become, they would need to get some surprising things right. Anderson was a first-round pick; Moncada was among the consensus three or so best prospects in the minors. Giolito had been, too, but by the time the White Sox got him from the Nationals as part of the return for Adam Eaton, he was something of a scratch-and-win ticket. He was 21 when he came to the White Sox, but had already blazed through the minors—“probably one of the most dominant minor league guys I’ve ever seen,” his former minor league teammate and current Nats reliever Erick Fedde told The Athletic—and had the luster beaten all the way off him in the majors. He bottomed all the way out in 2018. His 6.13 ERA was one of the worst ever for a pitcher that made 30 starts, and he allowed more earned runs than any big leaguer. He didn’t strike out enough people and walked more than anyone in baseball. The advanced metrics that might have suggested he was unlucky mostly suggested the opposite.

It made sense for Giolito to overhaul everything over the offseason, but also baseball is very hard and that is a lot easier said than done. Professionally speaking, it would make sense for me as a writer to get really good at say Writing Bestselling Young Adult Novels About A Tween Wizard And His Pals, but also that is not something I’m going to figure out over the course of a few months. Giolito, for his part, seemed to have no such trouble. As Zachary Rymer details at Bleacher Report, Giolito has completely revamped his approach. His new, more compact delivery is visibly different, and incorporates an element of deception that the old one did not. He ditched his sinker entirely and now throws a much-improved change-up nearly a quarter of the time. Neither righties nor lefties have had any luck with it, and it has helped the pitches that made him a big prospect years ago—a mid-90s fastball and a tailing slider that comes in a dozen or so miles per hour slower—play up significantly; hitters are 2-for 37-against his slider this year. Giolito has cut his walk rate nearly in half, and batters are swinging and missing at his pitches for the first time in his big league career. He struck out 6.5 batters per nine last season, and that figure’s at 10.6 over his first 13 starts of this one.

Since May 2, Giolito has gone 8-0 in eight starts, lowering his ERA from 5.30 to a league-leading 2.22; he was the AL Pitcher of the Month in May, and has somehow been even better in June, allowing just one earned run in 21 innings pitched. This time, the underlying stats suggest that he’s possibly even better than his top-line numbers suggest. It’s a breakout, then, but also something even more rare than that.

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When pitchers have become great a few years into their big league careers, they have typically done so in the way that Giolito has thus far this year—a sharp decline in walks, a commensurate jump in strikeouts, and an attendant boost in confidence and command that buoys everything else. That improvement just doesn’t usually happen this dramatically, or this quickly. Max Scherzer was a decent if inconsistent starter for the Tigers in 2010 and 2011 before abruptly goosing his strikeout rate in 2012 and winning a Cy Young in 2013. Randy Johnson was an All-Star even before he figured out how to throw strikes consistently; he led the league in walks and strikeouts in 1992 before cutting his walks-per-nine rate nearly in half the next year and spending the next decade-and-a-half as a furious hirsute godhead. Greg Maddux was battered below replacement level as a 21-year-old rookie, then just kind of arrived the next year as Greg Fucking Maddux and spent a couple decades that way. Baseball-Reference has Maddux improving from -0.4 WAR to 5.2 during those two years, but even that somehow doesn’t match the rise of Giolito, who was significantly worse last season (-1.3 WAR last year, by Baseball-Reference’s standard) and has been worth 3.4 WAR already. Roy Halladay, my personal standard-bearer for Was Really Bad Before He Was Really Good, was astonishingly bad in 2000, his second season—I will not share the numbers here but hachi machi—then straightened some things out in 2001 and was an All-Star super-ace by 2002, but even there the improvement was more gradual. There are probably some other, better comps to be made, but also look at these names.

A team tanking as hard as the White Sox have in recent years can’t help but be somewhat unpleasant to watch. Even if fans are aware of and on board with what’s happening, even if the organizational reset is done as thoughtfully and quickly as possible, there will still be a stretch of years in which the team is going to ask players that are not yet or may never be good enough to play in the majors to just go ahead and play in the majors anyway. When this doesn’t work, it looks almost cruel—not just to the players tasked with giving up those doubles and chasing them down, but to the fans that have to look through all that carnage and find some hope. Giolito, at his 2018 nadir, looked more like one of those doomed placeholders than someone who might become what he is currently becoming. His pedigree was known, his stuff was periodically electric, but baseball is very hard and everyone that plays it eventually fails. He seemed to be failing, and in the moment he indubitably was.

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As it turns out, the White Sox weren’t just leaving him out there to die. “They always stressed to me through that process, ‘We’re sticking with you, we believe in you. Keep doing your thing, keep working,’” Giolito told The Athletic’s James Fegan. “I was able to put my mind at ease in that sense, just knowing that I had the opportunity to try to develop and learn on the fly.” Giolito had to change everything, and relearn a lot, but that patience seems to be paying off—not just a team’s patience in its young pitcher, but the broader patience that, if you give baseball a chance, it might show you something you’ve never seen before.

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About the author

David Roth

David Roth is an editor at Deadspin.