Nationals righthander Lucas Giolito shined in 2015. He ranked as the No. 1 prospect in both the Carolina and Eastern leagues, started the Futures Game and checked in at No. 5 on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list.
So why, then, was he back at Double-A Harrisburg this season instead of a step away from the major leagues at Triple-A Syracuse?
The answer, simply, is command. When stacked against other minor leaguers, his arsenal is nearly unmatched. As they often do, however, advanced hitters in the upper levels of the minor leagues showed that even the wickedest repertoire needs to be commanded to be successful.
Through the first two months of 2016, for example, the 21-year-old Giolito proved he needed to iron out his control and command. In 34 innings, Giolito walked 25 hitters against 38 strikeouts. Why was he walking so many?
One scout who’s seen Giolito multiple times this year thought most of the righthander’s were due to in part to issues with mechanics and partly mental.
“When there’s a guy on first base, it’s like he’s preoccupied with that guy,” the scout said. “He’s inside his head too much. He’s trying to live up to the hype and the expectations. We’re still talking about a special kid, though.
“He’s getting too precise. He’s trying to be too perfect. He should just go out and throw with his best stuff. He probably should be in Syracuse, but I’m not concerned.”
Those issues still pop up every now and then, but Giolito has gotten better at getting back into his delivery when it goes awry and resetting himself mentally to limit any damage. One manager in the EL who has had multiple looks at him over the past two seasons said Giolito’s advancement in that area has been noticeable.
“The one thing I look at is how he reacts when he gives up a hit or a walk, or a play isn’t made behind him, or he’s behind in the count,” the manager said. “Before, you could see that frustration build, and he’d get mad at himself for not executing a pitch or not executing his delivery.
“Now, you see him get the ball, get back on the mound and get back right into the zone. (His delivery) still can get a little squirrely on him sometimes, but he’s getting back to it much sooner—within a count, within a batter or two. In the past, I’ve seen it unravel for four, five, six batters—or even a couple innings.”
Those changes have been evident in Giolito’s first two June starts, in which he pitched 13 innings, allowed 11 hits, struck out 20 and, most importantly, walked two.
“When we last faced him,” the manager said, “I was seeing more progress from the beginning of the season until now than what we saw from last year to the beginning of this season. I don’t know the kid, or how they’re doing it, but when we first saw him in his first start or two this year, I was disappointed, because I don’t care if he’s throwing a flat ground or what, he’ll show you impressive stuff.
“But command-wise, I was underwhelmed at the beginning of the year and thought he would be farther along than he was. Now, he is really starting to put things together, it looks like. He’s getting back into counts when he falls behind. His confidence, tempo and rhythm out there looks really good, and it is improving each time we see him.”
Another piece of the puzzle that’s come together is the development of Giolito’s changeup. His fastball and curveball have always been top-shelf offerings, but his change has always lagged a bit behind. This year, the pitch has continued to develop into a useable weapon to complete his arsenal.
“It looks like he’s more confident in that as well,” the manager said. “He’s more confident throwing it when he’s behind in the count, like a 2-0 or 2-1 count.
“He’s showing some nice fade on some of them that we haven’t seen in the past—at least (we’re seeing it) more consistently.”
Even after the early blip, there’s little doubt among evaluators that Giolito is a prized arm with the potential to be a premier starter at the highest level so long as he continues to iron out his few wrinkles.
“We’re still talking about a special kid though,” the scout said. “He’s just trying to be too perfect. He just needs to go out and throw with his best stuff.”
If he does that, Giolito should fit right into the Nationals’ gifted rotation.