Around the trade deadline, there was ever so briefly a rumor that the Nationals might entertain the idea of moving Lucas Giolito for Andrew Miller. It didn’t happen, and more importantly, it wasn’t true, but I wrote up a quick little post entitled The Case for Trading Lucas Giolito. The circumstances haven’t changed very much in the months since. Giolito is in the news again, mostly in connection with Chris Sale rumors. It’s possible that, by the time you read this post, Giolito will be property of the White Sox! The White Sox would be happy about that, because Giolito remains incredibly talented. He’s also been a declining asset. Since the end of July, Giolito kept on not retiring major-league hitters. He’s a 22-year-old top prospect, but there are more questions about him than ever.
Giolito is not the most-hyped pitching prospect of all time. He’s not even the most-hyped pitching prospect in recent history. Even just Stephen Strasburg‘s big-league debut was an event. Yet, Giolito is one of those guys you know about, even if you don’t follow prospects. He’s a blue-chipper, and he’s held onto that status for more than a little while.
First-round pick in 2012. He went from being Baseball America’s No. 67 prospect to being its No. 21 prospect to being its No. 7 prospect to being its No. 5 prospect. This past July, he was rated their No. 4 prospect. In June, our own Eric Longenhagen referred to him as “Earth’s best young arm.” Scouts have long been in love with Giolito’s potential, and his likelihood to deliver on it. Though everyone has some fundamental understanding that young pitchers are risky, Giolito’s star was as bright as they come. You could look at him and see Gerrit Cole as even just an average expectation.
This is where Giolito’s value comes from. Scouts have always loved him, and as a player climbs the ladder, scouts have the bulk of the say. And this is nothing against the observers — their collective experience is important, and it means something that Giolito built such a consensus.
Yet with everyone, at some point, you have to want sufficient results. There’s a transition period with prospects, where they climb higher and they can no longer be powered by hype alone. Giolito’s entered that transition period, and he had a miserable brief debut in the major leagues. That then shed further attention on the fact that, even in the minors, Giolito was seldom so dominant. That would be something on its own, but this is coupled with Giolito’s stuff not looking like it used to. There’s a widening gap between Giolito’s prospect ranking and his probable reality.
I don’t want to read too much into Giolito’s 21.1 major-league innings. That would be unfair, and you could argue that Giolito was rushed. Anecdotally, though, it feels like most of the best young pitchers have come right up and succeeded almost out of the gate. Giolito wasn’t inconsistent — Giolito was bad. He faced 101 opponents, and they posted a .988 OPS. He rated in the 28th percentile in strike rate, and, worryingly, he rated in the fifth percentile in swinging-strike rate. Names right by him on the leaderboard I’m not making up: Ryan Vogelsong, Yovani Gallardo, Nick Martinez, and Jarred Cosart. Giolito’s supposed to be a swing-and-miss pitcher. Instead he was a more hittable Andrew Cashner.
Giolito did get strikeouts in the upper minors. He didn’t get a lot of strikeouts in the upper minors, and his location continues to come and go. The hype has consistently exceeded the output. And now there are even concerns about the quality of the repertoire.
The prized curveball still has plenty of depth, but Giolito wasn’t spotting it well with the Nationals. The changeup is a distant third pitch, and while Giolito used to get his fastball close to triple digits, it just spent the bulk of its time around 93 – 94. For a four-seamer, it was flat, and Statcast didn’t yield an encouraging spin rate. There is no two-seamer complement. The four-seamer is the fastball, and it wasn’t a good primary pitch. It has to be better, and it could get better, but this was supposed to be the carrying tool.
I don’t want to imply that I’m giving up on Giolito or anything. He’s 22 and he’s huge, and the stuff could come back. The common belief is that larger pitchers can take longer to smooth our their deliveries, and Aaron Sanchez, for example, just figured out strikes. Maybe Giolito is one tweak away. Maybe he’s one offseason away, or one differently-targeted workout away. Giolito remains a better pitching prospect than most, because he does have his own background, and his own physical capabilities.
But here’s one thing we know: Pitching prospects get less valuable quickly, the deeper they’re found on a list. Take a glance at these estimated surplus values. The very best pitching prospects might be worth around $70 million. That’s where Giolito has been before. What if he “should” be a No. 30 prospect? That could cut his projection in half. What if he “should” be a No. 50 prospect? That could cut his projection into a third. Again, in that midseason BA prospect ranking, Giolito was No. 4. In the midseason KATOH prospect ranking, Giolito was No. 74. He had some success in the minors after that, but he also continued to pitch poorly in the bigs. By what Giolito has actually accomplished, he’s Jeff Hoffman. He’s been ranked close to Julio Urias and J.P. Crawford.
Because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, I do want to point something out. When I watch Giolito’s motion, I see a lot of a James Paxton mirror image. That is, Giolito throws similar to how Paxton used to throw, complete with the exaggerated high front arm. Paxton just this past season figured out strikes and missed bats, and as a contributing part of that process, Paxton lowered his front arm and lowered his throwing arm. The motion got more streamlined, more simple, and Paxton was a different pitcher. It’s possible that’s all Giolito needs. Maybe that would help him find the zone and pick up some missing zip.
What works for one guy, though, might not help another. Paxton eventually got himself unlocked. Giolito is not unlocked. His issues are presently unsolved, and many times that’s just how things remain. As hyped prospects get older, you want to see the numbers. Giolito hasn’t had those, and the hype will only diminish. Soon enough, teams could forget the extent to which Giolito was universally beloved.
Right now, Lucas Giolito is an exciting young pitcher. Six months ago, he was considered one of the top young pitchers in the game, and that isn’t very much time. Any pitching coach would love to have the opportunity to try to straighten him out, and his future could still be exceedingly bright. The Nationals know that, and any trade partners would know that. But all along, Giolito was supposed to have an easier time being successful. The quality of his pitches was supposed to be obvious. The less certain he is to come close to his ceiling, the more ordinary he is as a prospect. The Nationals currently have both Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. I could guess which of them they’d like to keep more.