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.”