White Sox

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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The learning process continues for Dylan Cease, who just had 'my best start of the year'

The learning process continues for Dylan Cease, who just had 'my best start of the year'

Dylan Cease's ERA is still north of 5.75.

He's not a finished product, no matter how much anyone wants him to be one.

"It would be ideal for me — and my ability to sleep — and everyone’s mood if these guys came up and dominated immediately," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Thursday. "In reality there is a little bit of a learning process that goes on."

All these results, the ones that have contributed to that ugly ERA and some generally ugly outings over Cease's first couple months in the major leagues, are learning moments. Not convinced on the effectiveness of those learning moments? Just look to Lucas Giolito, who took all the struggles he had in 2018 and turned them into an All-Star 2019 season in which he's blossomed into the ace of the staff.

But, despite the hype, these guys aren't coming up finished products.

Cease, though, has flashed the potential that has earned him all that hype, and in no outing did he flash more of it than he did in Friday night's start against the visiting Texas Rangers.

Following the theme that seems to be developing in Cease starts, he had a pretty lousy inning early in the game, in this case the very first inning, in which he served up a three-run homer. The theme continues, though, that Cease usually uses all that composure and maturity everyone's always raving about to settle down and pitch a decent game. Friday night, he was more than decent. After the first inning, Cease retired the next 11 batters he faced and allowed just two hits (both singles) over five scoreless innings.

Cease, following in the tradition of perfectionist pitchers everywhere, hasn't been happy with previous outings that followed a similar script. This time, he was pleased. Maybe something to do with the career-best nine strikeouts.

"To me, that was just a huge confidence boost right there. Now I just need to not let those big innings happen," Cease said. "That's definitely my best start of the year today, besides that first inning."

"You had a couple of things going on," manager Rick Renteria said. "He had a rough first, we scored some runs, he holds them. We scored some more runs, he holds them. He kept doing that throughout. It's a big push. You see, there's a confidence-builder in that particular outing today. He should be happy how he ended up redirecting himself and righting the ship."

Cease's ability to do just that, right the ship, might give him a bit of a head start on his developmental process at the major league level. After all, Giolito and James McCann talk frequently about that issue plaguing Giolito in 2018. When things went wrong early, Giolito couldn't get back on track. He's been able to this year, contributing to his success. If Cease can do that from the day he hits the majors, that's a plus.

And if that's a tool Cease already has in his tool box, then the next step would be eliminating those early troubles. As good as Cease has looked at times, those numbers aren't lying. He's given up 32 earned runs in his 50 big league innings. He's given up 11 home runs in nine starts and has yet to have an outing without allowing a homer. Walks have been a sporadic issue: He walked just one batter in each of his last two starts but walked five in the outing prior and has three starts this year with at least four walks.

Again, learning process.

"His stuff is — it's electric stuff," Renteria said. "Sometimes you wonder, 'How can they hit him?' or 'How can they do this?' It's just (that they are) big league hitters. You leave something out over the plate or something they can manage, and they're going to do what they can do with it.

"As long as he continues to execute and use that stuff that he has, he's going to be OK."

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Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: It's Elvis night on the South Side

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: It's Elvis night on the South Side

Scott Podsednik and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Baseball Night in Chicago to discuss all things baseball.

They talk Yoan Moncada's comeback, Eloy Jiménez's injury, the Cubs' continuing bullpen struggles and more.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: