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Lucas Giolito’s first start of the season was a huge relief

The Nationals’ former first round pick had one of the worst seasons in MLB history last season with the White Sox.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

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Lucas Giolito popped up all winter long whenever I went down a FanGraphs stat hole. He was consistently at or near the bottom of every qualified starting pitcher category I’d sort by and FanGraphs listed 57 such starting pitchers in 2018.

Giolito 2018

Stat Value Rank
Stat Value Rank
K/9 6.39 55th
BB/9 4.67 57th
K/BB 1.39 57th
HR/9 1.4 48th
K% 16.1% 56th
BB% 11.6% 56th
AVG 2.48 42nd
WHIP 1.48 57th
BAbip 0.268 11th
FIP 5.56 57th
xFIP 5.46 57th
SIERA 5.37 57th
ERA+ 68 57th

In case you’re wondering: yes, that’s really bad. Notice how Giolito definitely had some bad luck with his final values (10-13, 173.1 IP, 6.13 ERA) — that batting average on balls in play BAbip should’ve led to fewer runs, not more — in part because the White Sox defense had the 4th-most errors in 2018 and were fifth-worst in Defensive Runs Saved (behind the Phillies, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Mets). That fatal combination of walks — nobody pitched more walks in baseball last season than Lucas Giolito — and a well below average major league defense conspired against him to create one of the worst pitching seasons in recent history.

Using the good ol’ Play Index, in fact, since 1908, no pitcher 23 or younger with at least 30 games started in a season posted a worse overall line than Giolito did (he was 23 in 2018). Javier Vazquez’s 1998 in which he posted a 69 ERA+ in 172.1 IP for the Montreal Expos (kids, ask your folks) is the most recent season to come closest. However, using that above criteria, Giolito’s 2018 was only the 8th-worst season for a starter in baseball history.

So, Giolito had nowhere to go but up. This was one of baseball’s top prospects and the Nationals’ 1st round draft pick in 2012 — the Giants would take Chris Stratton four picks later. Then he went to the White Sox in the Nats’ December 2016 trade for Adam Eaton. Giolito would start seven games of the White Sox at the end of 2017 and look pretty solid (a 2.38 ERA / 4.94 FIP split in 45.1 IP). Enough to get excited.

Most of that went out the window. It’s fair to say the state of the White Sox had a lot to do with the altered perception, but the numbers don’t lie. There was just nothing good about the White Sox in 2018, however, and Giolito by extension; and, after a rough 2019 Spring Training (an 8.84 ERA with a staff-leading 6 home runs allowed in just 18.1 innings) it certainly seemed like White Sox fans were about to get more of the same. And then he made his season debut Sunday afternoon and a glimmer of hope appeared.

Giolito recorded win number one of the season for himself and the White Sox and struck out 8 Royals across 6.2 innings and 99 pitches. Sure, you might want to sit back and say, “Well, it’s the Royals, and they’re trying to be really, truly, unabashedly terrible this year,” and I’d agree with you; but against any team last year, Giolito looked unabashedly terrible and through Spring Training he looked terrible. Today he did not, and that’s a sign of encouragement.

Plenty of first round draft picks — pitchers especially — haven’t reached their perceived ceilings or satisfied organizational expectations. It’s just one start, but it was an important one. Giolito isn’t at a crossroads at just 24, but he’s playing on a terrible team that’s in the midst of a perpetual rebuild. It’d be easy for him to pack it in. Instead, he threw his fastball 62 times today, averaging 94 mph with it, and had a strike percentage of 78.7%. He was efficient, needing just 31 pitches to get through the 3rd through 6th innings.

And he had a no-hitter through six and a third innings.

Yes, the Royals are bad, but Giolito was historically bad as recently as six months ago. It would’ve made a lot more sense for him to have been bad — instead, he took his raw talents and put them to use against a team just 18 months ago everyone would’ve presumed he could overpower and did exactly that.

Today’s win was a big step forward for a player looking to show that last year didn’t set his career in stone and a franchise desperately trying to regain relevance.