Giolito’s reputation on dramatic decline
Once untouchable, top prospect included in trade package for Eaton
Mark it down: Dec. 7, 2016, the untouchable was jettisoned.
Lucas Giolito’s massive frame and now-inquestion potential were traded to the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday for an outfielder nicknamed “Spanky” who is an advanced-metric darling, but hardly an inspiring acquisition.
To show how far Giolito’s pitching reputation has fallen in a year, he alone was not enough to obtain Adam Eaton, who has never had more than an .800 OPS. Two other top prospect pitchers, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, a first-round Washington pick in 2016, had to be packaged with Giolito.
“I think the determining factor to do a deal that included Lucas was the player that we got in return,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters. “It was something that fit for us well. We liked, again, the flexibility of the contract and the control of the player and the player itself.
“The analytical side of it was very, very positive. Our scouts loved him, loved the way he played. I
think he brings a good package to the ball club.”
Just a season and 21 innings in the big leagues had passed since Giolito was deemed unavailable by the organization. In the middle of 2015, Washington’s hardline stance appeared warranted. Giolito started the All-Star Futures Game for the U.S. side. He pitched two scoreless innings. His fastball whirred, delivered with a quick arm action by a 6-foot-6, 20-year-old California kid.
Giolito had a shining demeanor to go with his stuff. Raised by parents long involved with Hollywood, Giolito was unfazed by cameras or pressure circumstances. He was comfortable, thoughtful and funny in front of the media.
Those traits were displayed last February in Viera, Florida, when Giolito spent spring training on the major league side for the first time. He tried to stay out of the way, not wanting to disrupt preparation time for the veterans.
Giolito was also a thirsty learner, listening to pitching elders like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. His social media accounts reflected his age. He and minor league catcher Spencer Kieboom created a variety of desserts in their townhouse kitchen, then shared the results. It was clear both should stick to baseball.
At spring training, Giolito tussled with his emotions, even when going through drills. The first day he was on a mound, standing atop the pile of dirt closest to fans and onlookers, he would sigh loudly if he missed his spot. Asked about it afterward, he said, “I have to stop doing that.”
Giolito’s major league debut became as truncated as his Washington career.
On June 28, he was rolling against the rival New York Mets. Four innings, one hit, no runs. Rain delayed the start, forcing Giolito into manager Dusty Baker’s office multiple times to ask when the game would begin. Then, rain ended his start when the game stalled again. Instead of the first flash of promise, Giolito’s debut became an outlier: a successful day in the major leagues. He would not have another.
In five more games, he would never pitch more than five innings. He would never allow fewer than two runs. The numbers by the end of the season were troubling. Giolito walked more people than he struck out. His ERA was a gargantuan 6.75. His WHIP 1.78. Opponents hit .295 against him; they swung at and missed strikes just 6.3 percent of the time. He couldn’t fool hitters. He also could not throw the baseball by them.
Giolito felt like his mechanics were off-kilter. Not only was his location poor, but his secondary pitches lacked action and his vaunted fastball lost speed. According to Fangraphs, his fastball traveled just 93 mph on average. That’s a touch ahead of Tanner Roark, who relies on tailing movement at that speed. The pitch Bryce Harper had joked was delivered at a “billion” mph was now just straight and ineffective.
“I can pitch at 93 if I’m hitting my spots and mixing up well,” Giolito said then. “I think I left way too many fastballs up over the middle of the plate. Those are the ones that got hit pretty hard. The velocity I don’t think is a huge deal as long as I am pitching the way I should be pitching.”
Opponents noticed the drop. “The reports you read about him say he throws about 95, 97,” said Colorado Rockies star Nolan Arenado after facing Giolito. “Those are the reports we saw and on video. It wasn’t that.”
Nationals manager Dusty Baker noticed, too.
“We haven’t seen it yet at the major league level,” Baker said of the velocity. “His fastball is relatively straight.”
All that after Giolito changed his mechanics in July. He shortened his windup in pursuit of better balance, dropping a step back in favor of positioning that made him start his delivery almost from the stretch position. To see a young pitcher make an alteration was one thing. To hear Giolito say the decision how to change was about 90 percent his, the rest left to the organization, was strange. Baseball’s top pitching prospect had decided to alter his delivery on his own.
Late in the summer, Giolito went up the bus ramp just outside the Nationals’ clubhouse entrance. He and Scherzer were heading out into the heat for a run. Scherzer could explain to Giolito how he struggled at first in the major leagues, prompting the team that drafted him to trade him away. How he never forgot that lesson in bitterness and business, then used it as another shovel of coal in his furnace. How, in the end, he won the Cy Young Award while with the team he was traded to and was still stirred by the trade eight years later when back in the same league as the team that discarded him.
Giolito could become that lesson now. He has this chance because his first effort in the major leagues flopped, the dismal results driving his sudden shift from offlimits to out the door.
Just 21 innings in the majors had passed since pitcher Lucas Giolito was deemed untouchable by the Washington Nationals. On Wednesday, the declining value of the former Nationals prospect was evident as he was shipped as part, not the centerpiece, of a three-player package, to the Chicago White Sox to acquire outfielder Adam Eaton.
The Washington Nationals obtained an advanced-metric darling in Chicago White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton.