At this time a year ago, the combination of “Lucas Giolito” and “Cy Young” would not have made a whole lot of sense.
In his first full season in the major leagues, Giolito was statistically the worst pitcher in baseball. Then he went to work last offseason, making mechanical adjustments as well as revamping his mental approach. It completely transformed his game, and in 2019 he was quite simply one of the best pitchers in baseball. He made the All-Star team and emerged as the ace of the South Side staff, finishing with a 3.41 ERA and 228 strikeouts.
It was a remarkable season, even if it wasn’t quite as out-of-this-world as the ones turned in by Houston Astros co-aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, who are expected to take the top two spots in the AL Cy Young vote when those results are released Nov. 13. Nine days earlier, though, three finalists will be named. Is there a case to be made that Giolito should be the third?
The votes were submitted before the start of the playoffs, so this isn’t an attempt to change anyone’s mind. But let’s see how Giolito stacked up against his fellow AL hurlers this season.
He ranked fifth in ERA, behind Cole (2.50), Verlander (2.58), Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays (3.05) and Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Indians (3.28). He was seventh in strikeouts, trailing Cole (326), Verlander (300), Bieber (259), Lance Lynn of the Texas Rangers (246), Morton (240) and Matt Boyd of the Detroit Tigers (238).
But of all those pitchers, Giolito had the fewest innings thanks to a couple brief injured-list stints that kept him to 29 starts. Every other contender was at 30 or more. But if you check out K/9, Giolito’s 11.62 ranked third in the league behind only Cole (13.82) and Verlander (12.11). He trailed just the two Houstonians in hits per nine, too, with a 6.67 mark in that category compared to Cole’s 5.53 and Verlander’s 6.02.
Giolito ranked fourth in OPS against, at .646, trailing only Cole (.579), Verlander (.579) and Morton (.623). He was third in batting average against, at .205, trailing only Verlander (.172) and Cole (.186). That mark was 10 points better than Morton and 25 points better than Bieber. Among the top contenders, Giolito gave up fewer home runs, 24, than Verlander (36), Bieber (31), Mike Minor of the Texas Rangers (30) and Cole (29).
And then there are Giolito’s two signature outings of the season: his complete-game shutouts of the Astros and the Minnesota Twins, two teams that won 100 games in 2019. Both those performances came on the road. Throw in Giolito’s rain-shortened complete-game effort against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 18, and he was tied for the league lead with three complete games. Bieber threw three nine-inning complete games, two of them shutouts, but they came against the Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels, three teams that nearly lost a combined 300 games.
There’s a case to be made Giolito was the third best pitcher in the AL this season, leaning into rate stats like K/9 and hits per nine, as well as focusing on his dominance against opposing hitters with batting average and OPS against — including teams chock full of the best hitters in the game in the Astros and Twins (he also held the 100-win New York Yankees to one run over six innings on June 14).
Giolito would be the first White Sox pitcher to finish in the top five in the Cy Young vote since Chris Sale was fifth in 2016, the same year Jose Quintana finished 10th. Sale finished fourth in 2015 and third in 2014, details to keep in mind should Giolito finish at either of those spots.
Regardless of whether it’s third, fourth, fifth or somewhere else, Giolito’s season is all important for the White Sox, who can count a top-of-the-rotation pitcher among their core pieces as they look to shift out of rebuilding mode and into contending mode as soon as next season. With starting pitching on Rick Hahn’s offseason to-do list and a host of top-of-the-rotation types on the free-agent market, the White Sox have the opportunity to create a fearsome 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation.
We'll have to wait until next month to find out where Giolito finished in the voting. But the fact that we're even talking about him receiving Cy Young votes of any kind after what happened in 2018 is astonishing and as good a frame as any for his terrific transformation.