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Lucas Giolito had twice as many pitches in second start

Breaking balls complete approach in seven shutout innings against Tigers

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Rick Renteria’s decision to leave Lucas Giolito in to face Jose Iglesias with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning on Sunday was poor strategy.

But it was outstanding theater, especially after Iglesias turned on a down-and-in fastball and belted a fly that hooked in front of the left-field foul pole, but close enough to initially confuse the umpires.

Giolito then came back to get a harmless groundout to close out seven scoreless innings.

In a future game in a future season with an established bullpen hierarchy, I imagine Renteria goes to a reliever at that point. Even after adjusting for the inferior rotation he inherited, he’s shown an understanding of the risks of overexposing a starter. But since Giolito had a 5-0 lead and was still in line for the win no matter what, Renteria decided to take advantage of the risk-free risk-taking opportunities a rebuilding season provides.

I was in Winston-Salem during Giolito’s start, so I didn’t have a grasp of the whole performance when Josh asked me about it on the podcast. My answer was that Renteria probably could communicate to Giolito that he threw an outstanding start regardless of what happened after, and Giolito would rather risk giving up the runs himself than somebody else doing it. Based on his postgame reaction, Giolito acknowledged the limb on which Renteria extended himself.

“When Ricky came out there, he said, ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling?’ I said, ‘I’m good, ready to go.’ I really appreciate that I got that opportunity to finish that inning right there, and luckily we were able to get the groundball and get out of it,” he said. “It’s good. I felt confident, and luckily it worked out.”

Watching Giolito’s start in full a day later didn’t change my opinion of the decision because of the aforementioned low stakes, but I imagine I’d’ve felt worse about Giolito’s chances for success based on how he and Kevan Smith approached JaCoby Jones the batter before.

The sequence Kevan Smith called for against Jones featured two things Giolito didn’t try in his first start against the Twins:

  1. Back-to-back-to-back changeups.
  2. A 3-2 curveball.

In isolation, both of these are good, ballsy pitch calls. I’ve always admired the fortitude of tripling up on offspeed pitches, because as Kennys Vargas showed with a homer in Giolito’s Sox debut, a fastball can easily undermine the setup of back-to-back offspeed pitches. The 2-0 changeup was thrown with conviction for a swinging strike, and the 2-1 changeup was thrown in the dirt. The 3-1 changeup was thrown for a strike out of necessity and fouled off.

Likewise, Giolito felt good enough going to his breaking stuff on full counts earlier in the game. In particular, he fooled Justin Upton with a 3-2 slider after Upton successfully resisted one on 2-2, and he almost got Ian Kinsler with the same (Kinsler fouled it off to stay alive and then walked on a fastball). Going to the big curve was a first, and it almost worked. But there are a lot of ways for a curve to almost work, which is why they’re so risky to throw on three-ball counts.

Taken together -- along with the wavering fastball command that put two on in the first place — it seemed like Giolito and Smith were trying to make Jones guess himself into an out, rather than executing pitches to overmatch a hitter who’d spent most of the season in Triple-A. The sequence had all the hallmarks of evident fatigue, which is why I’m hoping Renteria won’t make a habit of leaving starters in to close out their own battles at such points in future games.

But it’s hard to blame Renteria for wanting the better story for a young player and a young team for a day, and it worked out. Giolito pitched seven scoreless innings for his first MLB win, making some key improvements over his debut and leaving us nitpickers to only gripe over things that might not have worked out under different circumstances.

Rather than do that, let’s look at a handful of other things I liked, such as:

No. 1: The fastball usage.

Because he couldn’t throw either of his breaking balls for strikes, Giolito had to lean heavily on his fastball the first time around out of necessity for counts, and the Twins eventually got wise to it. Against the Tigers, he established the other pitches well enough to use his fastballs more judiciously and more creatively. His pitch frequency from his first start to his second:

  • Fastballs: 71 percent to 55 percent
  • Sliders: 4 percent to 17 percent
  • Curves: 10 percent to 16 percent
  • Changeups: 14 percent to 11 percent

Moreover, he started throwing a more distinct second kind of fastball against the Tigers. There’s variation between Brooks’ count (15 sinkers) and Baseball Savant’s (nine two-seamers), but both saw only four-seamers in Giolito’s debut against Minnesota. He wasn’t shy about running it in on right-handed hitters, plunking John Hicks and knocking down Ian Kinsler.

Speaking of which...

No. 2: His slide step.

Because Giolito is 6'6" and uses a leg kick from the stretch, one might think he'd be vulnerable to the running game. That said, baserunners were only 14-for-20 against him in Charlotte, and the first stolen-base attempt against Giolito in the majors was unsuccessful. Kevan Smith was able to gun down Jones at second on the pitch that knocked down Kinsler, and that was only Smith's third runner kill of the year in 40 chances at second base.

No. 3: The order of his secondary pitches.

While it was impressive that Giolito had some degree of success against the Twins without either of his breaking pitches, the success with his changeups seemed unsustainable given the combination of frequency and shaky command.

Once again, Giolito threw a number of high changeups to Detroit.

Lucas Giolito’s changeups on Sunday.
Baseball Savant

Again, this does not seem like a recipe for repeatable success, but it’s easier to see him having the element of surprise in his favor when he’s throwing his sliders and curveballs more often, and to greater success. It also helped that he benefited from ...

No. 4: All of those counts in his favor.

Giolito threw first-pitch strikes to the first nine hitters of the game, and only had one 2-0 count through the first six innings. He went about this in a mostly straightforward, fastball-oriented approach, but he had the ability to change up looks to the hitters who required more thinking.

In particular, he had Miguel Cabrera off-balance all afternoon after a three-hit game the night before. The first time up, Giolito started Cabrera with a fastball, then threw him a mix of sliders and curves before busting him in with a full-count fastball for a weak groundout.

The second time up, Giolito worked over Cabrera, who swung through a changeup, swung through a fastball, then popped up an up-and-in fastball to second base.

Third time? A first-pitch curveball, which wasn’t in a great location but still only resulted in a groundout to short.

If you want to quibble, Giolito’s secondary pitches drifted higher as the game proceeded into the later innings, but his ability to throw everything for quality strikes earlier in the game made him less exploitable later on, even when he invited it. Mixed with velocity that was more ordinary but also more stable, it all combined on Sunday to create success that has a far better chance of holding up.