Why the Nationals Would Trade Lucas Giolito

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.

We hoped you liked reading Why the Nationals Would Trade Lucas Giolito by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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NatsSen
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NatsSen

Interesting ideas, but 21 innings is little to go on. I am surprised by the article.

BritishCub
Member
BritishCub

I think you’ve missed the point its’s not just 21 innings that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the disconnect between his minor league numbers and his perceived reality. (which is further highlighted by those innings) and also is percieved loss of stuff. Now if the minor league numbers that pegged him as number 74 with KATOH in july are closer to the truth than the scouting consensus, washington have an asset that’s valued higher than its worth and those are the assets you then may want to move for pieces more accurately valued hence the title of the article

emh1969
Member
emh1969

The other issue is that his appearances were really spread out: June 28th, July 7th and 24th, August 28th, September 7th and 26th.

I’m sure he had some minor league appearances in there. But I imagine that it’s hard to get into a rhythm when you’re back and forth between the majors and minors and/or not pitching on a consistent basis.

HarryLives
Member
HarryLives

Jeff’s right, though. When you look at his Pitch FX data, you see a fastball with above-average velocity but average movement, a great curveball with a ton of depth, and a change with little depth or fading action. That’s not the repertoire of an ace pitcher. That’s the stuff of a #3 starter, and that’s if his command improves. I think the Nats are pretty smart to deal Giolito, now, before his value really plummets in 2017. It would be one thing if the stuff was there and the results weren’t, but right now, neither the stuff nor the results are there.

treyash9
Member
treyash9

Right – and 2016 was his age 21 season… can we give him and the pitching coaches a minute to figure it out or do we require immediate results?

KidsCanPlay
Member
KidsCanPlay

It’s fair to say it was his age 21 season, and nobody is writing off Giolito definitively, but you want something with a much higher floor than what he has demonstrated as the centerpiece of a Chris Sale trade

HarryLives
Member
HarryLives

Being 21 or younger didn’t seem to bother Alex Reyes, Julio Urias, or Roberto Osuna very much. The fact is that Giolito walked more guys than he struck out and had a 6.3% swinging strike rate last. Among the pitchers who were 21 years or younger in the big leagues last year and threw at least 20 innings, Giolito had by far the worst swinging strike rate (German Marquez’s 9.7% was the second lowest), and it’s not like he was dominant in the minors. It’s a very small sample size, and in that small a sample, ERA is meaningless, but Lucas Giolito threw 431 pitches last year, and hitters swung and missed at 27 of them. For swinging strike rate, 431 pitches isn’t that small a sample, and Giolito will never be a top-of-the-rotation starter if he doesn’t miss more bats. If I were the Nats, I’d cut bait, now.

treyash9
Member
treyash9

Where’s the “Why the White Sox should trade for Lucas Giolito” post? Can someone provide the opposite slanted perspective for some balance? How about a deeper look at his AAA performance (where he apparently wasn’t dominant with 2.17era/1.10whip/4.0 K/BB). What were the radar readings in AAA? Was his command better of each the FB and CU? Would love to hear about these things.

HarryLives
Member
HarryLives

Across AA and AAA last year, Giolito had a 24% K rate and a 9% BB rate, good for a 3.35 FIP. That’s not bad, but it’s not dominant.

#NYU42
Member
#NYU42

Harry, Giolito actually threw 398 pitches and hitters swung-and-missed 25 of them. Basically the same right, but just wanted to get it right.

baines03
Member
baines03

“I don’t want to read too much into Giolito’s 21.1 major-league innings. That would be unfair”

Read words please.