We heard a lot about "learning experiences" during the White Sox 100-loss 2018 season.
It was Rick Renteria's way of describing the to-be-anticipated growing pains for highly touted players spending their first full seasons in the major leagues. Fan expectations were high for the likes of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Yoan Moncada, and by very few measures did those players — some of the first of the organization's bevy of prospects to reach the South Side — live up to those expectations.
But that doesn't mean that those players' seasons were devoid of value. Renteria, the White Sox and the players all expect these "learning experiences" to have long-term benefits. In other words, it's the struggles now that will help these players succeed and create the planned perennial contender on the South Side.
So if those "learning experiences" were so valuable, what did these guys learn?
Giolito finished his first full season in the bigs with a 6.13 ERA, leading baseball in earned runs allowed and leading the American League in walks. What did he take from what looked from the outside like a disappointing season?
"I think I learned the most from my worst starts this year, the ones where I didn’t make it out of the first, didn’t make it out of the second," Giolito said before the end of the White Sox season last month. "Just going out there not having the right mindset from the get go and allowing the game to speed up on me really quickly, there’s maybe two, three, four games where that happened. And obviously I came out of those games upset and frustrated, but now looking back on them from this perspective at the end of the season, I really learned the most from those.
"Entering every single start, I get roughly 32 of them a year, make sure that I’m prepared, I’m ready to pitch, my routine is set and I’m following it to a ‘T.’ And over the second half of the season, I started to put up better numbers, put up more competitive starts just through that process of earlier in the year grinding and grinding and not doing well. I learned a lot about myself in that process as a pitcher and as a competitor."
Certain numbers don't exactly show a drastic improvement from one half of the season to the other: Giolito's ERA prior to the All-Star break (6.18) and after it (6.04) were pretty much the same. He had a much improved August (3.86 ERA in six starts) and a rough September (9.27 ERA in five starts).
But again, the 2018 season wasn't about what the numbers look like now. It was about what those numbers will look like a year or two or three from now, when the White Sox make their transition from rebuilding to contending.
"You go out there and you don’t get the job done, you’re knocked out of the game early, looking back on it, it’s like, ‘Now I know what doesn’t work.’ And I’m able to make those adjustments and the changes to the routine and the changes to mindset and things to be able to go out there," Giolito said. "I’m not going to have my best stuff every day. Some days I might not feel right and might be battling myself a little bit. But it’s being able to make that quick adjustment, not letting the game speed up. That’s the biggest thing.
"At this level, you go out there and you’re not feeling right in the first inning, it might be three runs, four runs on the board before you even know it. And I think getting that experience, getting to pitch every fifth day for an entire season and having a ton of downs and starting to figure it out more toward the end, it’s gaining that experience and learning what works and learning what doesn’t."
Throughout the season, Renteria complimented Giolito for the pitcher's ability to move on from rough beginnings to starts and turn in a five- or six-outing despite the early trouble. Giolito did a good deal of that throughout the season, with longevity during starts rarely being an issue, even if the run totals were high. Only six of his 32 starts in 2018 were shorter than five innings, and the percentage of his starts that lasted six and seven innings increased from the first half of the season to the second.
And then there are the walks, and there was a significant decrease in the amount of guys Giolito was putting on base between the first and second halves of the season. He walked 60 batters in 103.1 innings in the first half for a BB/9 of 5.2, compared to 30 batters in 70 innings in the second half for a BB/9 of 3.9.
So there were positives for Giolito to take from his 2018 campaign.
"The second half of the season, bouncing back from what I was doing. Cutting down on the walks, starting to pitch better, pitch more consistently. Even games when I wasn’t sharp, I was getting hit around, not doing so well, I did a better job of at least giving the team a chance, getting a little bit deeper into the game," he said. "So I’d say those are some of the highlights, learning from the mistakes and learning from the failures and within the season being able to make the right adjustments to be more successful."
On Opening Day, Giolito talked about how different a pitcher he was more than a year after joining the White Sox organization. One full season in the big leagues, and Giolito is again a different pitcher. It's that continuing evolution that the White Sox hope will make him a mainstay in their rotation of the future.
"More experience, more mature. I’m no longer really fazed by the big situation. If I get into trouble in the first inning, I’m not worrying about it or thinking about it or how I screwed up the last at-bat, last pitch, I walked a guy, gave up a double, whatever it might be. Now, what’s in the past is in the past, even when I’m out there," he said. "If I mess up a couple pitches, I know the adjustment to make and I’m going to do my best to make that adjustment without it taking a couple innings or even never making the adjustment the entire start, which is what was happening through April, May, June.
"Just getting that experience and learning to make those adjustments on the fly. I’d say that’s what I’m really taking away from this year."