It looked like maybe the bright lights of being the top pitching prospect in baseball may have been too much to handle. Lucas Giolito — arguably the best overall prospect in all of the minor leagues — looked lost at the start of the season, like a pitcher much different than the one that had struck out 241 batters over the past two seasons. Luckily for the Washington Nationals, the old adage that patience is a virtue has paid off, as Giolito has turned the corner in a big way.
While every prospect, especially pitching, goes through rough patches, Giolito’s was discerning because of how uncharacteristic it was. Giolito has had bouts with command issues in the past, but the start of this season was particularly alarming. After all, this is a 21-year old who had posted 10 strikeouts per nine innings as opposed to just 2.7 walks per nine for his career entering the 2016 season.
Most privy to the prospect world knows the skinny on Giolito by now. The 16th overall selection of the 2012 Draft is as close to a sure thing as there is in the minor leagues this season. Fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery of his draft season, Giolito has a powerful mid-90s fastball that hits 99. He has a hard curve that hammers down on his opponents and gets them chasing. His changeup was inconsistent and the lack of an above-average third pitch was considered the one thing holding him back from a faster track to the nation’s capital.
The problem was, earlier this season, he didn’t look like that at all.
Giolito’s control issues got him in trouble to start this season. He posted a frightening 17-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first five starts, leading to high pitch counts and short-lived appearances as he wasn’t able to escape the fifth inning in any of those starts. Giolito — a pitcher who struck out 131 batters while walking 37 in 2015 — wasn’t missing many bats and was seemingly missing the strike zone more often than not.
Perhaps this led Giolito to a loss of confidence in his top-notch stuff, and it showed elsewhere in his performances. He started behind the proverbial eight ball in many of his starts, allowing six of his 18 earned runs on the season in first innings. He also struggled mightily with runners in scoring position, posting a 7.85 ERA on the season.
A May 9 start saw Giolito at his worst, as he allowed six runs on five hits, walking four. He needed 71 pitches to get out of three innings, and he only landed 52 percent in the strike zone. After a May 14 outing against Akron, one that saw him walk five and strike out just four over 5.2 innings — landing only 55 percent of his pitches for strikes — he turned to his pitching coach to try and pinpoint where he was going wrong.
“I’d extend my leg kick a little too much,” Giolito told Sam Dykstra of MiLB.com. “It wasn’t compact enough, and it’d force me to leak my front side a little and lean back too much. It just created a lot of inconsistency with my mechanics. When you have inconsistency there, everything else falls apart. You stop trusting your stuff. You don’t know how the ball is going to go. Now with that ironed out, I’m going out there every fifth day with my trust in myself back and trying to be myself again.”
Giolito has definitely become himself again. His past four starts have been exactly what the Nationals had hoped to see as a follow-up to his brief, eight-start 2015 Double-A debut.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound righty has been nothing short of dominant in said four appearances, winning his last three starts in a row, while powering through at least six innings in each start and throwing over a 100 pitches in three of them. He’s hurled 26 innings while allowing just three earned runs (a 1.45 ERA) and has found his command. He has a lights-out 32-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that span, with 66 percent of his pitches falling in for strikes. When you consider that four of those seven walks came in a May 30 start, his turnaround is even more impressive. While his WHIP may still be higher than he usually posts, when you put it in context that it has dropped from 1.64 to 1.35 over this streak, it becomes less worrisome.
His last start — once again against Akron — was one of the best of his young career. Giolito went seven innings of four-hit ball, allowing two unearned runs to score, while striking out a career-high 12 and walking one. Nine of the 12 strikeouts came swinging. In fact, Giolito recorded seven consecutive outs via swinging strikeouts, striking out the side in both the fourth and fifth innings, looking a lot like his future Washington Nationals rotation-mate Max Scherzer.
The Nationals are known for closely monitoring the climb of their young pitching prospects, and with the current rotation in D.C. — a relatively young one by major league standards — there is seemingly no dire need to rush Giolito to the big leagues. That being said, a few more quality starts and Giolito will be Syracuse bound.
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