MLB All-Star Game

The shared journey Lucas Giolito and James McCann took to All-Star status

The shared journey Lucas Giolito and James McCann took to All-Star status

CLEVELAND — Lucas Giolito and James McCann. There might not be a more unlikely pair of All Stars.

Last season, his first full year in the majors, Giolito’s 6.13 ERA and his 1.48 WHIP were the highest among baseball’s qualified starting pitchers. He led the American League with 90 walks. In five seasons with the Detroit Tigers, McCann slashed an unimpressive .240/.288/.366.

Flash forward to the 2019 Midsummer Classic, and both are here representing the White Sox after having two incredible first halves.

Offseason adjustments are the reason why. Giolito made mechanical adjustments to his delivery and worked on the mental side of things, and now he’s got a 3.15 ERA and stands as the White Sox ace. McCann looked in the mirror and decided what kind of hitter he really was, and now he’s got a .316 batting average and might not just be the catcher of the present but the catcher of the future, as well.

But while each player has made his own individual journey from the bottom to the top, this journey to Cleveland, to All-Star status, is a journey they’ve shared.

“It started with our first conversation after my first bullpen throwing to him (in spring training),” Giolito said Monday. “He said, ‘The ball looks different coming out of your hand than last year.’ Last year, I would have games where I could ramp it up to 95, 96, but it just wasn’t coming out the same. And he was the first one to say, ‘What’d you change? What happened?’ And so that already made me feel good from the get-go.”

“I remember telling him, ‘You’ve got different stuff this year than you did last year,’” McCann said. “I knew just from catching him, his fastball had more life, his breaking balls were sharper, everything was crisper. And that was a product of him shortening up his arm action, and everything became a little bit more lively. Whereas a hitter, I never felt as a hitter when I was facing him, even though he was throwing 94, 95, the ball never felt like it was jumping on me. Whereas now, it does.”

Boy does it. Giolito had a dominant first half, launching a Cy Young candidacy with a major league leading 11 wins, that 3.15 ERA (which only jumped above 3.00 thanks to a rough outing against the Cubs on Saturday), and 120 strikeouts in his 100 innings of work. It’s been astounding for White Sox fans to watch after so many of them cast him out of their projected rotation of the future following his woeful 2018. But now those same projections include Giolito at the top.

And according to Giolito, McCann has been part of the reason why.

“He makes my job really easy,” Giolito said. “My job’s not easy, being a starting pitcher is not easy, being a pro athlete’s not easy. But it is a lot easier when I have a guy back there that’s done — I’ve never seen guys do their homework like he does.

“Every single flight, he’s got his iPad, computer open. He’s looking at numbers that I still don’t understand yet, putting together scouting reports for each hitter we’re going to face. We go over it together. And then when we go out there, we both have the gameplan so set in our minds that it just makes it easier for me to go out there and perform, be loose, relaxed and just have fun with it.

“He’s doing all the thinking, he’s doing all the hard work. And I’m just out there throwing the ball.”

McCann said he’s drawn on experience he had catching Justin Verlander and David Price and others during his time in Detroit and has tried to pass on some of those lessons to Giolito. But Giolito did so much on his own, even before spring training started, that has made his transformation possible.

“Lucas did a tremendous amount of work in the offseason and put himself in a very good position entering into spring training. And adding James to the mix has helped nurture that, helped cultivate that physical advancement and put him a position to succeed every fifth day,” general manager Rick Hahn said last week. “I can’t say enough about the work Lucas did, the open-mindedness of our coaching staff to allow him the latitude to make those changes and the work that both our coaching staff and our catchers have done to help him maximize that and stay on track. It’s really been a great combination of events here.”

McCann, meanwhile, made his own adjustments at the plate, and he went from a No. 2 catcher to Welington Castillo and a veteran bridge, of sorts, to highly rated catching prospect Zack Collins to the White Sox starting catcher, a middle-of-the-order hitter and a guy who suddenly looks like a featured piece of the franchise's long-term plans.

He's also brought a leadership element that Giolito thinks so highly of that he's trying to model himself off the All-Star backstop.

“We have a lot of different personalities in our clubhouse, it’s fantastic. But James can get along perfectly with each one,” Giolito said, “and can lead us from the serious perspective, can lead us from the having-fun perspective on the bus, messing around, joking around, picking on rookies, whatever it may be.

“He’s a true professional at that, and I want to continue to learn for the future of my career because I’d love to be able to do what he’s doing. If not for a whole team, for the starting-pitching staff or whatever it may be. Unbelievable leader. Sometimes he doesn’t have to say much to show the team what we should be doing.”

So what’s next after these two play in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night? (They might even get the opportunity to play at the same time.) Obviously they want to keep doing what they’ve been doing to produce such incredible first halves.

To the question of what Giolito can do to get even better, the perfectionist pitcher had his own answer. But the catcher was a little stunned at the suggestion.

“Statistically, it’s hard to be better than what he’s been,” McCann said. “I always think there’s ways to improve. I think that it’s going to be a constant thing that he’s going to continue to improve as far as his the way he goes about things.

“You look back to his last start against the Cubs, he’s very frustrated with the one inning that got away and he couldn’t get it back in sync. So for me, that’s the next step is when you feel like you can’t get it back in sync, how can you get it back in sync? Which he’s done this year. He’s had outings where he’s given up a three-run homer in the first, and the next thing you know, he’s thrown eight innings and given up three runs.

“But statistically speaking, I don’t know that I’m going to sit here and tell you that it needs to be better, because it’s pretty good.”

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Javy Báez's quest to take more photos and other gems from the Cubs' All-Star Media sessions

Javy Báez's quest to take more photos and other gems from the Cubs' All-Star Media sessions

It was media day at the MLB All-Star Game today, which means Kris Bryant, Javy Báez, and Willson Contreras got to answer questions that didn't have to do with the trade deadline or not performing up to expectations or accountability or anything that is oddly thrown around so much for a first place team. 

All three have been in All-Stars in the past, with Báez and Contreras now on their 2nd and Bryant on his 3rd. You can tell they're all All-Star veterans, since all three talked about doing less work and enjoying the moment more (which, by the way, is not a knock on them at all. There should be no real work done at any All-Star game, ever). On their impressions of multiple All-Star appearances: 

Báez: "It’s pretty exciting, and I’m going to try and enjoy it more than I did last year."
"Really excited to be able to do it with family. Like I said, last year was a special moment, but this year I’m going to try and enjoy it more and take a couple of pictures." 

Bryant: "It’s definitely different every year. The first year was like, “OK, I'm going to do the home run derby - I was a little stressed out about that and nervous. The second year, as a starter, there are different responsibilities - you have to be there for the whole game. And then this year, I’m just really trying to enjoy it and relax. I might not even really do anything today at the work out, just try and take it all in. So it’s been really cool to have this as my third time and have them be different experiences each time."

Contreras: "Yeah, it feels better than the first time. I’m more relaxed, and I can enjoy it more during my 2nd time at the All-Star game. I’m proud of what I have done so far this year. The first time around, you’re just looking around, and you don’t believe it. The 2nd time? Now you know that you put in the right work to be at the All-Star game. I think I deserve it, all the players that are here deserve to be here. Like I said, I’m more relaxed, I’m getting to know [everyone else] better, and enjoying it this time."

The Cubs' three All-Stars: Not there for a long time, just for a good time. 

Three All Stars is a big deal for the White Sox, but should they have more?

Three All Stars is a big deal for the White Sox, but should they have more?

The White Sox are sending three players to the All-Star Game in Cleveland, a number of representatives the franchise hasn’t seen since 2014. Lucas Giolito, James McCann and Jose Abreu all getting All-Star nods is a nice recognition of the team’s rebuilding progress in a 2019 season that’s been filled with bright spots.

But South Side baseball fans wanted more.

Yes, the consensus seems to be that three White Sox in the Midsummer Classic is too few. Where is Tim Anderson? Where is Yoan Moncada? Where is Alex Colome? For a fan base that watched its team lose a combined 195 games during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, that might sound greedy. The only AL team with more initial All Stars than the White Sox was the Houston Astros, with six. The New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians saw their totals grow to five and four representatives, respectively, once the injury replacements were announced. The Yankees now have five, and the Indians have four.

But certainly cases could be made that Anderson, Moncada and Colome all deserved All-Star recognition. And if you’re bummed that those three won’t be joining the other three in Cleveland, you’re not alone.

“I absolutely think Tim should have gone. I think Moncada should have gone. I think Colome had an argument to go,” general manager Rick Hahn said Wednesday. “At the same time, I’m guessing all 30 GMs feel there’s a few more guys on their team that could have conceivably made it.

“And when I looked at the player voting for shortstop and saw where TA came in, initially I was like, ‘Well, wait, that’s too low.’ And then I saw the four guys that came in ahead of him and was like, ‘You know those guys are pretty good players. I guess that’s why he’s in that group where he is.’ There’s a lot of excellent young players in the league right now.”

Indeed there are. The shortstops who will be suiting up for the AL are Jorge Polanco of the Minnesota Twins, Francisco Lindor of the hosting Indians and Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox. Even Bogaerts didn’t make the team at first, added later as an injury replacement. Polanco’s got a whopping 41 extra-base hits, enough to earn him election to the starting spot. Bogaerts leads all AL shortstops with a .920 OPS. Lindor’s numbers are closer to Anderson’s, but he’s got more doubles, more homers and a heck of a lot more walks.

But Anderson truly broke out during the first half. He still ranks high in the AL with a .317 batting average, and his 15 stolen bases rank third among AL shortstops. Anderson, too, carved out a name for himself on the national stage with his bat-flipping after home runs and a stated goal to help make the game more fun. Having him on the All-Star team would have been good for baseball, no doubt. But a high ankle sprain that will likely keep him on the injured list a few more weeks made everything rather moot.

Moncada, meanwhile, is in the midst of a great season. After striking out 217 times in 2018, his first full season in the bigs, he’s currently the owner of a .308/.363/.546 slash line, plus 16 home runs and 48 RBIs. Among AL third basemen, only Boston’s Rafael Devers (not on the All-Star team) has a higher average and a higher slugging percentage.

The power numbers of Houston’s Alex Bregman, the AL starter at third base, and Oakland's Matt Chapman, a reserve, deservedly got them into the game. But there’s a good argument to make that Moncada should be there, too, as he continues to show how vastly improved he is from a season ago.

“I put my best effort in the first half. I worked hard,” Moncada said Sunday through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I was able to carry over all the work that I put in during the offseason. I worked a lot then to have a better season overall, not just the first half. And I’m very confident I’ll be able to carry this to the second half too.”

“I think it goes without saying, if anybody looks at the numbers and the way he's performed. He's an All-Star quality player,” manager Rick Renteria said before Sunday’s game. “I pull for these guys every day, but I think he's shown everybody. If you compare his numbers to many, they're quite comparable. He's on pace to have a pretty good season.”

Moncada wasn’t disappointed he missed out on the All-Star experience in 2019, saying it was out of his hands whether he was named to the team or not. But he knows what the next step is for him.

“Being an All Star,” he said. “We couldn’t do it this year. Maybe next year.”

And then there’s Colome, who has spent the first half of his first season on the South Side as a mostly dominant closer. The only three AL closers with more saves — New York’s Aroldis Chapman, Cleveland’s Brad Hand and Detroit’s Shane Greene — are all on the All-Star team. Chapman and Greene have both blown more saves than Colome, and Hand has a higher ERA. That’s not to knock those three, who have all been excellent for their respective clubs, but it shows that Colome is in their same class.

Certainly the White Sox aren’t voicing any displeasure other than their opinion that Anderson, Moncada and Colome are among the best at their positions in the Junior Circuit. And certainly they’re thrilled to send the redemption stories of Giolito and McCann, along with Abreu, who they love so much, to Cleveland.

But this might be just the beginning. If the White Sox rebuilding plans bear the fruit the team expects they will, multiple South Siders in the All-Star Game won’t be accompanied by digging through the history books. And snubs might be a regularity — because you can only send so many guys to the Midsummer Classic each year.

“I think over the coming years, our guys are going to continue to solidify their name and their space on those lists,” Hahn said, “and hopefully we’ll see more and more appearances here in the coming years.

“Frankly, it’s great to have a midseason honor. We’re looking forward to having some postseason honors for these kids. That’s really more what the focus is for the long term.”

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