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So what's up with Lucas Giolito? How did last season's least effective starting pitcher become one of baseball's best in less than a year?
Regardless of the answer, this has been great fun. Giolito is the first White Sox pitcher since Chris Sale who represents a legitimate chance for a win every time he takes the mound.
Like last Friday night. Even though the Yankees were in town, with Giolito pitching, more than 31,000 fans showed up bursting with optimism, and they weren't disappointed. After giving up a first-inning home run, he shut down the visitors until he departed in the seventh, earning his 10th victory while shrinking his ERA to 2.22.
Let's look at Giolito's record from a year ago, his first full season in the major leagues. His ERA of 6.13 was the highest of all starting pitchers. He also walked 90 batters, more than any other hurler in either league. In this century no pitcher has led in both walks issued and highest ERA in the same season.
Nevertheless, Giolito still won 10 games. In those victories over 61-plus innings, his ERA was a respectable 3.36. In his 13 losses, that number mushroomed to an appalling 9.70. That's about as inconsistent as you can get. Giolito's bosses apparently saw enough promise to keep him with the Sox rather than sending him to Charlotte for more development. After all, the team was rebuilding en route to 100 losses. Why demoralize the kid?
Historically Giolito's experience, while enlightening and exciting for Sox fans, isn't totally unique. Many athletes have provided us with peaks and valleys, although Giolito's abrupt turnaround ranks close to the top.
There are those among us who remember Virgil Trucks, a hard-throwing righthander in the American League in the 1950s. He had had some good years with the Tigers, winning as many as 19 games, but the 1952 season saw his record drop to 5-19. Amazingly, two of his five wins were no-hitters.
Maybe the Tigers figured Trucks had seen his better days because they traded him to the lowly St. Louis Browns, who then sent him to the White Sox midway through the 1953 season. Virgil caught fire - his nickname actually was Fire - and finished the season with a combined 20-10 record. In parts of three seasons on the South Side, Trucks went 47-26 with a 3.14 ERA. Looking back, those no-hitters were no accident.
More recently, consider the case of Zack Greinke, the ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks. As a 21-year-old in 2005 in his second season with Kansas City, he was 5-17 with an ERA of 5.80. Contributing to Greinke's woes was his battle with anxiety and depression.
Because of the support of the Royals and competent professional help, Greinke rebounded mightily. He won a Cy Young Award in 2009 with Kansas City, leading to some huge free agent contracts - he's making $35 million this season - and today he's just five wins shy of 200 at age 35.
Sox beat writer Daryl Van Schouwen of the Sun-Times last week wrote a piece about Giolito's stunning season in an attempt to decipher the reasons for Lucas's precipitous about-face. Van Schouwen and others have mentioned Giolito's new "arm swing," a term with little notoriety until very recently. I think it means that Lucas's delivery is more compact this season as his arm remains closer to his body as opposed to a long extension of the limb on his delivery a la Chris Sale.
Reports say that Giolito worked last winter with his old pitching coach Ethan Katz from the tony Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. For a tuition of almost $40,000, the 120-year-old institution not only boasts a college preparatory program but also excellent coaching. In addition to Giolito, the baseball team had pitchers Max Fried, now with the Braves, and the Cardinals' Jack Flaherty on the same staff with Lucas.
Katz departed Harvard-Westlake for professional baseball with the Seattle Mariners organization, where he was a pitching coach for two seasons. Today he is the assistant pitching coordinator for the Giants. Giolito credits Katz with introducing him to drills which altered his off-season workouts.
Nevertheless, Giolito had a horrible spring training, with an ERA of 8.84 over 18 innings, and after his first five starts this season nothing much had changed. He was 2-1 with a 5.32 ERA.
But since May 7 over eight starts, no one has been more effective. Try out these numbers: eight straight wins; an ERA of 0.94; opponents' batting average of .149; over 57⅓ innings, he's walked 14 while striking out 65; and he's given up just two home runs in this homer-happy era.
Giolito also sings the praises of catcher James McCann for calling a good game and helping Giolito's rhythm.
Clearly, Giolito's pitch selection has changed from a year ago, and since McCann is responsible for giving the signs, which Giolito rarely shakes off, McCann has discovered a few tendencies. Most prominent is that Lucas throws many more off-speed pitches than in the past. Almost a quarter - a 10 percent uptick - of his deliveries are changeups. Because Giolito's fastball has topped out at 98 and averages more than 94, the changeup, delivered about 12 mph slower than the fastball, has become very effective. Last season the difference between the two pitches was about 8 mph.
In total this season, fastballs and changeups have comprised 80 percent of Giolito's deliveries.
Because McCann sets the pace, Giolito is taking less time between pitches. This works nicely for many athletic endeavors. Ever see Steph Curry shoot a free throw? He gets the ball and shoots it. No contemplating or waiting. He has supreme confidence so there's no reason to hesitate.
As Giolito's confidence grows - and it certainly has - he doesn't need to question his ability or think long and hard about his next pitch. McCann does that for him. Mark Buehrle was the master of this trait. He had an idea of what he wanted to do with each pitch and didn't need to think much about his game plan. Even after giving up a home run, Buehrle would stick to his pattern, and that's exactly what Giolito has been doing. The home run last Friday didn't rattle him whatsoever as McCann kept him focused and on point.
While Giolito now ranks among the elite starting pitchers in baseball, two teammates have taken his place at the bottom. Of the 81 starting pitchers listed by MLB.com, Reynaldo Lopez ranks dead last in ERA with a mark of 6.31. Occupying the 80th spot is Ivan Nova at 6.28. In the realm of opponents' batting average, Nova is last. The other guys are hitting a robust .329 against him. Second worst is his buddy Lopez, who's responsible for a .290 opponents' batting average.
The buzz surrounding the White Sox is becoming louder and louder these days as the team reached the .500 mark after beating the Yankees last Thursday and Friday before dropping a pair over the weekend. The four-game series drew 130,100, an average of 32,525 a game. With two games this week against the Cubs at Wrigley, the Sox will send Nova and Giolito to the mound. The highs and lows will be on display for all to see. Maybe Nova can use some of Giolito's drills and techniques before he faces the Cubbies on Tuesday evening.
1. From Bill Friedman:
One more for your "They were terrible to start . . . then got better."
Greg Maddux's first full season with Cubs:
6-14, 5.61 ERA in 30 starts. 1.638 WHIP
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