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Lucas Giolito Has Arrived (For Real)


As a fan of Lucas Giolito and his potential for the last couple of years, I have to admit I'm bummed about his last outing. A complete game, four-hit shutout on the road against the Houston Astros, MLB's top offensive team???

This would be great, except couldn't you have waited until I finished this article first? By mid-May it was obvious he was already on to something with his improved control. Then there's the fact I didn't have the guts to put him in my rotation days after picking him up in a 12-team league because I thought this would be a blip on an otherwise fantastic 2019 season. Turns out I was wrong, as we all were about Giolito this year.

As someone who was taken at an ADP of 439 in NFBC leagues and went undrafted pretty much everywhere in competitive redraft leagues, Giolito surpassed expectations a long time ago. Here's the crazy part: he keeps getting better. While it's impossible to top his last performance, let's look at what specifically has gotten him to the point of achieving a long-awaited breakout and whether he can sustain it.

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What a Difference a Year Makes

Giolito may not realistically win Comeback Player of the Year, since that's usually reserved for those who were missed large parts of the previous season due to injury or some other adverse situation. We don't award guys who stunk up the place and then suddenly got better when they were supposed to be good all along. But Giolito didn't just stink last year, his ratios were the equivalent of passing Mount Trashmore on the turnpike with your windows down and the AC off while a nervous skunk sits in the passenger side next to you.

Giolito was quite literally the worst in 2018. His 6.13 ERA was dead-last among qualified starters, supported by a 5.37 SIERA. His 4.67 BB/9? Also the worst. His 13 losses tied for fifth-most in the majors and he was also last with a 63.5% strand rate.

Wait, about that last part... Usually, a low strand rate means a pitcher was at least somewhat unlucky, doesn't it? It's an oversimplification to use it as a pitching version of BABIP but in some sense, these things usually even out over time. In 2017, when Giolito posted a 2.38 ERA in seven starts and looked ready to fulfill the promise of a former first-round pick and top-10 overall prospect (as high as #3 before the 2016 season), he posted a 92% LOB%. That would have been the best in the majors by five points, ahead of Clayton Kershaw's 87.4%. This year, Giolito has a 73.9% LOB%. Not great, not terrible, but at least acceptable. So why the big fluctuations?

One thing you'll find in common for most pitchers stuck with a low strand rate is a bad defense behind them. In 2018, the White Sox ranked 26th in Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) at -28.6. For context, Fangraphs defines anything below -20 as "Awful." They were followed, in order, by the Phillies, Mets, Orioles, and Blue Jays. It's no surprise then to see pitchers like Nick Pivetta, Jake Arrieta, Dylan Bundy, and former teammate James Shields all fall within the bottom 10 of strand rate. Lower the threshold to 100 IP and Marcus Stroman is the lowest, followed by Dylan Covey.

Bottom line: Giolito is better partially because his luck has turned around and his defense isn't nearly as terrible as last year. While they actually rank lower at 28th, it's at a mere -14 DEF. See - better! Of course, a pitcher can only blame his fielders so much, especially when he's walking 11.6% of all batters he faces. This brings us to our next point, control is good.

 

Control is Good

Control is generally a good thing. This applies but is not limited to: drone piloting, self-restraint at Happy Hour with your boss, and Marley Marl and Janet Jackson albums. It's really good for a pitcher who wants to stay in the big leagues. Giolito just didn't have it last year and now he does, sporting a 19.3 K-BB%. Aside from cutting down drastically on free passes, his strikeout rate has nearly doubled to 28.5%. That's quite a leap.

Here's how he is doing it - better pitch selection. Giolito is throwing his curveball less and he's eliminated his sinker completely. Giolito threw his sinker 20.5% of the time last year and it was hit more than all five of his pitch types at an xBA of .287 and a whiff rate of 12%. Now, Statcast doesn't even register the pitch. Instead, he's throwing his four-seamer more frequently and mixing in a changeup a quarter of the time.

He still relies mainly on his fastball, which has average spin and slightly above-average velocity (65th percentile) but he's keeping batters off-balance more often while eliminating his worst pitch. That doesn't account for the strikeout jump though. In that case, it's all about the slider.

 

It's All About the Slider

When he first came up in 2016, Giolito wasn't throwing a slider. Now, it's his main put away pitch, 23.7% of the time, generating a 53.8% Whiff%. Take a look at how his Whiffs per Swing have gone up on that one pitch alone.

By contrast, let's look at the recent trend for another right-handed starter of similar stature within the same division, Corey Kluber. His Whiffs per Swing rate on the slider was sky high once he began his All-Star run but fell off a cliff last year. It was at its lowest rate since his rookie year before he got hurt this season.

The former Cy Young winner, and All-Star for the past three years, is nine years older and is currently on the shelf with a broken arm, so this year is a wash for him anyway. That doesn't mean we can't imagine Giolito as a young Kluber based on this data, right?

 

Conclusion

Giolito's outlook is pointing up based on a number of factors. Strand rate can fluctuate, as can team context. His defense has been better (I didn't say good, just better) and his bullpen has held up. Strong work by Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera (it was one bad outing, OK?) have helped him reach a 6-1 record before June arrives. Those factors are out of a pitcher's control.

Giolito is taking control by asserting himself as a strikeout pitcher more so than a ground ball pitcher. The introduction of the slider more often and the elimination of an ineffective sinker have helped him achieve that goal. There's no need to worry about stranding runners if you don't give them the chance to put the ball in play in the first place, after all.

Many fantasy owners are skittish to buy into Giolito based on last year's nightmare season, reflected in the fact he was barely half-owned in all leagues before his domination of the Astros. That figure is now up to 64%, which means a decent amount of leagues still have him sitting on waivers ready to be claimed. If nothing else, those looking for pitching help in keeper leagues should see if a buy-low window still exists with a contender who owns Giolito. This would have been much easier to achieve a week ago but the gleeful owner who is content to "sell high" may take a fraction of his real value by thinking he is bound to crash and burn. You know better though.

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