The meteoric rise of Lucas Giolito this season has been straight out of NASA, a rocket boost for a pitcher whose once bright career almost became permanently grounded following his disastrous 2018 season.
The most earned runs in baseball. The second most walks. Giolito could have been forever scarred. But instead, the former “top pitching prospect in baseball” — who went home to Southern California saying, “I don’t want to be a loser anymore” — is now tied for the most wins in baseball.
How Giolito got to this point didn’t just start in the offseason when he shortened his delivery and rewired his overthinking pitching brain.
To fully grasp how far he’s come, you have to trace it back to his days with the Washington Nationals and the two pitchers who took him under their wings: Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
“It’s been fun to watch. He’s come a long way,” Strasburg said about Giolito in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “He’s obviously made a big step and a big adjustment. I think that for anybody, there’s going to be times in the future where you’re going to have to do it again, but I think he’s also proven to himself that he can do that when it’s necessary, so I don’t see any reason why he can’t dominate for the next 10 to 15 years.”
I think White Sox fans will take that.
The 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick who had the "phenom" label placed on him just like Giolito, Strasburg could relate to the attention and heat that Giolito was feeling all around him.
“You’ve got to flush out all the noise. After being around for a while, you start to realize how the game is. It’s always going to be that way. There’s always going to be a new guy coming up that they’re going to say is going to win Cy Young after Cy Young. Some guys pan out, some guys don’t,” Strasburg explained.
When Dusty Baker was the Nationals' manager in 2016, he told the young Giolito to learn as much as he could from Scherzer, a Cy Young Award winner known for his tireless work ethic. One day before a game, Scherzer asked Giolito if he wanted to go for a run outside the stadium. Giolito wasn’t much of a runner, but this was Max Scherzer. How could he say no? It might have been better if he did. Scherzer had to keep slowing down along the way because Giolito couldn’t keep up with him.
The run proved to be symbolic for the young Nationals pitcher who dreamed of having a career like Scherzer's, but at that moment, he had a long way to go, not just on the pitcher’s mound, but in the strength and stamina department.
“He was a young kid who was 21 years old in the major leagues. That’s a daunting time, knowing where I was at as a baseball player when I was 21 years old,” Scherzer said about Giolito.
The lesson Scherzer taught Giolito that day is what he continues to preach to young pitchers today.
“You have to get better. A lot of times we’ve been told how great we are. No one really comes up to you and tells you you have to get better. For me, I know that helped me when I was a younger player. I realized that I had to get better. That’s one of the things I always try to articulate to the next guys coming through, realizing how hard this league is, how hard it is to stay here and how much better you have to be,” Scherzer said.
This might be hard to believe for a pitcher who has now won three Cy Young Awards, but back in 2011, Scherzer believes he was where Giolito was last season.
“2011 was the worst year of my career. You have two bad years in this league and you’re gone. So for me, I had to get better. I had no choice,” said Scherzer, who had a career-high 4.43 ERA but still went 15-9 with the Detroit Tigers in 2011. “I just put my head down and just did everything I could to just go out there and make everything as consistent as possible.”
These were basically Giolito’s blueprints for renovating his career.
Playing in the National League, Scherzer has only seen highlights of Giolito here and there this season, but he immediately recognized the biggest change in the White Sox pitcher’s delivery and he’s a fan of it.
“I’ve just noticed that he’s shortened up his arm action. He’s got a much different arm path than when he was here with the Nationals. Typically, I’m a huge fan of guys who shorten up and have short arm actions. To me, that’s not surprising why he’s having success,” Scherzer said.
After winning American League Pitcher of the Month honors in May, Giolito has continued to dominate in June, throwing 15 scoreless innings against the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals. In his last seven starts, he’s 7-0 with a miniscule 0.88 ERA. What a turnaround for a pitcher who once was lost, but now has been found.
“Everybody needs a wake up call. You can always push yourself more, you can always do more,” Scherzer said. “You can always train harder and find ways to train smarter and better. It never ends and that’s the best part, that it never ends.”
And the White Sox are hoping that this is only the beginning for Giolito.