(Editor's Note: As we await the debut of Washington Nationals rookie Lucas Giolito, here's another take on the young right-hander by Clinton Riddle, a companion piece to Scott Mowers' article from earlier this morning).
Washington Nationals top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito is set to make his MLB debut today, a much-anticipated debut indeed.
What’s interesting about him is the divide he’s engendered among scouts and analysts: is he pure ace material? Will he have difficulty adjusting to the big leagues?
Giolito had already created a stir as a draftee in 2012, when he was considered one of the best pitching prospects in recent memory to come out of high school into the Draft. It was a gamble on the future in every way possible; Giolito already faced the possibility of Tommy John surgery before he even set foot on a pro field. As so many have seen, it certainly paid off.
Giolito has had some minor bumps along the way, but his numbers throughout his minor-league experience have been very good, overall. There was an expectation that a 6’6", 255-pound pitcher with mid-to-upper-90’s heat and a hammer curve would rack up strikeouts by the bushel.
Instead, those numbers have been closer to one K per inning than most might have expected. One way of looking at that would be to assume that he has been either overrated as a power pitcher or that he has underperformed and failed to meet expectations.
The truth is more likely to be that Giolito has utilized his power and finesse to its maximum, going after hitters without having the "blow them away" mentality that seems to go hand-in-hand with many power arms. This is, arguably, the most effective approach for potential aces: go for the strikeout in 2-strike counts, but pitch to the batters’ weakness in all cases and let your defense work behind you. Giolito’s arsenal and mental approach makes him an ideal #2 starter, at least. But there’s more to him than just a fastball-curve mix.
Giolito gets superior leverage from a 6’6" frame, a high arm slot, and an aggressive approach to hitters. The mechanics are simple and quite easily repeatable, with a quicker and more compact delivery than one might expect from such a tall pitcher. There is some slowing of arm speed on his off-speed offerings, at times, which may be more related to his feel for a potentially-plus change-up than his hard curve, a pitch that was already a lethal weapon for Giolito several years ago. His fantastic arm speed is worth discussing, as it gives his plus curve even more deception.
It should also be noted that his BB/9 has significantly increased, from 2.8 in 2015 to 4.3 this year. Also, he has made it through seven innings only twice in 2016, averaging 17 pitches per inning thus far. However, he also will be only 22 at the end of this season, and has accomplished a great deal for a pitcher his age, expectations and super-prospect status notwithstanding.
There seems to be little question that Giolito will become a strong and dependable MLB starter in the near future. The question is, how soon?
Not all 1st-round picks are the same, obviously; some progress more quickly than others. For pitching prospects, especially those who are particularly tall, it can take a little more time for them to fully adjust to the pro ranks. Much of it comes down to facing more-advanced competition while trying to maintain sound mechanics with much longer limbs.
From that point of view, it’s a simple matter of physics (levers and pulleys and so forth). Mentally, there’s no question that Giolito can handle the Majors. It doesn’t seem that he’s been fazed by his time as a pro, on any significant level. A lot of what he will need to do at this stage in his career involves smoothing over the rough edges a bit, which means developing more consistent feel for his off-speed offerings and learning how to approach significantly-more-advanced batters.
Giolito’s MLB debut is going to be a real joy to see. However, he’s probably not yet ready to take a regular turn in the Nationals’ rotation. He could adjust to it if he was to remain in the Majors for an extended time, but he would certainly have a rough time in the process. He’s better off getting more time in Class-AA and perhaps advancing to Triple-A Syracuse before August, but with Strasburg having his own significant injury issues it’s entirely possible that Giolito could be in for his biggest challenge yet. It will not be a smooth ride, but he has the tools to make it through.