Considered a possible #1 overall selection going into his senior year of high school, Lucas Frost Giolito had all the things you’d look for in a prototype high school pitcher – perfect size, big fastball, feel for a change, effective breaking pitch.
And then his elbow popped. Giolito ended up needing Tommy John surgery, and with the surgery looming, it was a big curiosity going into the draft where he would be selected (or if he would at all).
The Washington Nationals ended up being the team to take that chance at the #16 overall pick in the first round, something the Nationals have now become known for doing – taking a pitcher while recovering from TJS (or about to have the surgery) and working with him through a protocol to strengthen his arm post-surgery.
After making one appearance in the Gulf Coast League where he threw two innings and allowed a run, Giolito went under the knife.
Based on his pre-surgery pedigree, Giolito was rated as the #67 prospect by Baseball America before the 2013 season, #74 by MLB Pipeline and #70 by Baseball Prospectus.
Roughly a year later, he was back on the mound for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League team, and after eight starts at that level, the Nationals let him make three appearances with their Auburn affiliate in the New York-Penn League.
Combined between the two levels, he made 11 starts, throwing 36 2/3 innings, posting a 1.96 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 9.52 percent walk rate and 26.53 percent strikeout rate.
His excellent return from surgery rocketed him up prospect lists, and after that 2013 season, he was rated #21 by BA, #44 by MLB Pipeline and #13 by BP.
In what has become a common practice for Washington in handling their post-op pitchers, Giolito’s first full season post-surgery was all in one location, no matter how much he dominated (and he definitely did dominate).
He spent that 2014 full season with Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League in low-A, where he made 20 starts, throwing 98 innings with a 2.20 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.25 percent walk rate and 28.5 percent strikeout rate.
Those dominating numbers led any rankers holding back to jump in with both feet, and Giolito found himself a consensus top-10 prospect as BA had him #7, MLB Pipeline #6 and BP #6.
Giolito split his 2015 season between high-A Potomac in the Carolina League and AA Harrisburg in the Eastern League. While his numbers weren’t eye-popping, they still showed plenty of dominance for a 20-year-old who threw just short of 50 AA innings.
His 2015 combined stat line was 21 appearances (19 starts), throwing 117 innings with a 3.15 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.49 percent walk rate and 26.52 percent strikeout rate. He did see a curious tick up in his hit batsmen and wild pitches, indicating there could be some command/control issues under the surface.
Prospect lists weren’t worried about a few extra wild pitches, however. BA moved Giolito all the way to #5 overall while both MLB Pipeline and BP had him #3 overall.
While 2016 saw Giolito make his major league debut, it could be viewed as a difficult season for Giolito. He opened the year with AA Harrisburg in the Eastern League, worked his way to AAA Syracuse, and threw 20+ innings in the major leagues as well.
His combined minor league numbers were 22 starts, 115 1/3 innings, a 2.97 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 9.02 percent walk rate and a 23.77 percent strikeout rate.
With Washington in the majors, he made six appearances, four of them starts, throwing 21 1/3 innings with a 6.75 ERA, 1.78 ERA, 11.88 percent walk rate and 10.89 percent strikeout rate. He also had a tremendously high home run rate in the major leagues.
At the winter meetings, the Chicago White Sox acquired Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning for outfielder Adam Eaton to play center field for the Nationals.
While the prospect community continued to rank Giolito highly, he did fall some in rankings after his struggles, ranking #25 overall with BA, #11 with MLB Pipeline and #10 with BP.
Size – Giolito is at that borderline of “too big” as a prospect, standing 6’6″ and listed at 255 pounds, though I don’t think you’d get me to blink if you ran that number up even 20-30 pounds higher.
While his size is not going to stop him from being a productive major leaguer, to be as large as he is before even getting to the major leagues is a bit of a worry as it can lead to some issues with his mechanics going forward.
Delivery – Washington really messed with Giolito’s delivery and mechanics in 2016, and the results were not good at all.
He was starting on the third base side of the rubber, lifting his leg just below waist high and turning his left hip hard toward second base to generate the power he has in his pitches.
Giolito has a long arm path in his delivery, especially in his wind up, and the low leg left seemed to rush his arm through the delivery, hurting his ability to get full motion on his arm and full follow-through on each pitch.
In the video posted above, you’ll see that long arm path as he seems to open up his arms like wings as he’s in the peak point of his delivery. With his leg lift changed back to his previous spot of just under the letters, he’s getting better arm action through his delivery and better follow-through on his pitches.
I cannot tell you exactly why the Nationals did what they did, but one thought was that it was to help Giolito respond to base runners better.
If that is the case, than it would be a poor reason to alter a pitcher’s delivery at all, especially that pitcher’s wind up (which is only used when runners are not on base). Greg Maddux once joked when asked about his slow delivery to the plate that there was a reason he kept guys off of first base as a general rule!
With a guy who can touch triple digits and throws 65 percent or so of his pitches as fastballs, it’s going to be tough to steal bases off of Giolito in general, so it’s good to see him back to his previous leg lift.
I also noted in the video above from spring that he’s working more in the middle of the rubber now rather than toward the third base side. That should also help him keep on line to the plate better, something that he struggled with for the first time in his career in 2016.
Normally a guy as big (in height and weight) as Giolito will struggle in keeping a consistent landing spot, but Giolito has always done well with this before being moved on the rubber last year and trying to adjust his direction toward home in the new angle he was throwing.
Control (45) – Giolito is a very good case in command versus control. He has never had a full season walk rate above 10 percent. He does get the ball into the strike zone well and induces swinging contact that is not great contact.
However, even before his mechanical issues this season, Giolito was a guy who threw more into the zone this year than into the catcher’s mitt every time. When you watched him in 2016, it was noticeable how much the catcher’s mitt had to move to catch his pitches.
I’m curious to see how his overhauled mechanics take hold because in his first work in spring, that catcher’s mitt moving has been present still, in spite of low walk numbers.
Fastball (65) – On pure velocity, Giolito has at least a 70-grade fastball, if not a 75. However, he’s gone from minimal movement on the pitch to almost no movement with the fastball.
When your fastball is straight and missing the catcher’s mitt, but hangs around the zone, major league hitters will pound the pitch, and we saw that as he he allowed seven major league home runs in just 21 1/3 innings.
Giolito had a touch of late arm side movement on the fastball that was present before his mechanics were tweaked by Washington. I’m hoping that the excellent work that Don Cooper continues to do with the Chicago White Sox can recover some of that life and help his fastball play up.
He also saw less than his previous velocity in his pro debut, but that also seemed to be from his mechanical change as he topped out in the mid 90s rather than touching triple digits.
Change Up (55) – Unlike his fastball, Giolito’s change has a bit of sink to it. Giolito experimented some in the minor leagues with a two-seam fastball that could show back up in Chicago as it’s a favorite pitch of Cooper’s, and his change would play up even further at that point.
His change has interesting action as it has a touch of natural sink, but it doesn’t sink as much as a two-seam fastball would, so it would be an effective change to work with both fastballs as it’d give more depth than his four-seamer and less than his two-seamer.
Giolito did struggle in the mechanical alterations with repeating his arm actions on his change, and that allowed his change to become more predictable for hitters in the minor leagues. With his previous mechanics, his change did come off much more like his fastball, and if he can get a two-seam working in Chicago, the pitch could play up as a plus pitch.
Curve Ball (60) – Giolito works with a “spike curve” that has more loop ahead of the plate than the typical high-velocity curve that’s become popular among big velocity fastball guys.
Giolito’s issues in his mechanics also seemed to affect the curve in a negative way, really chopping off velocity from what I saw in it previously.
He’d thrown the curve up to the mid-80s easily previously, but the pitch sat around 80 in his pro debut with less hard bite and more of a loopy play.
When he has the hard bite, he has the ability to control the pitch on both sides of the plate and really use the pitch against either-handed hitters.
MLB Player Comp
Until he got into the hands of Pittsburgh’s noted pitching guru Ray Searage, many fans would have found a comparison to Ivan Nova as a fairly negative thing.
However, after he finished the 2016 season with 11 elite starts with Pittsburgh (where he only walked three in 64 2/3 innings!), Nova secured himself a significant free agent deal this winter.
Nova and Giolito have similar physical builds as Nova is listed at 6’5″ and 240 pounds and probably sits a touch larger than that. Both pound the zone with their pitches when everything is right as well.
One of the things that really changed for Nova in Pittsburgh was that he went to a two-seam fastball heavily from his excellent plane at 6’5″, and it led to a ton of ground balls and plenty of success.
I truly believe that Giolito will have a similar career line, with elite ground ball rates and low walk rates as long as he can get his mechanics back in line in Chicago.
I really like what I’ve seen from Giolito in the work he’s done this spring already, and I think he went to one of the two or three organizations I liked best for him (I think the Indians and Pirates are the other organizations that would work well with his stuff based on their past successes).
As I mentioned in the Lopez report linked above, the Chicago White Sox have a full rotation entering the 2017 season, and that could allow Giolito the time to work through some of the things he and Cooper are working on this spring.
I know that he’s received huge marks from Chicago coaches and team officials this spring for his work ethic from anyone I talk to. That will play well in any organization and certainly galvanize him as a guy the organization will go an extra mile for if he’s working hard and coachable.