It took forever for the White Sox to call up their top pitching prospects, and the positive early returns from Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez can be shaped to fit the interests of either the ones running the team, or the ones watching it.
From the organization’s side, you can take Giolito and Lopez going 5-for-6 in quality starts — and injury interfered with the lone exception — and say that the extra month(s) in Charlotte allowed them to arrive as nearly finished products.
From the fan/media side, you can look at their early success and say the White Sox missed an opportunity to be more interesting for weeks. Not necessarily more successful, mind you, but more compelling through commercial breaks.
When position players come up, it’s all about plate appearances. When young pitchers come up, watching the game is about whole innings, and then how those innings connect with each other. When Giolito and Lopez start, I’ll write down every pitch they throw. Sure, Statcast and PITCHf/x do the same thing, but just like taking notes in class or scoring a game, it’s a different level of engagement during the game itself.
Pitches lead to innings, innings lead to starts, and then starts lead to tendencies, like both Giolito and Lopez relying heavily on changeups when that wasn’t supposed to be the case.
After fastball command, Giolito’s changeup has been the biggest factor in his early success, and it’s been fascinating watching him expand the usage to situations that don’t naturally call for it.
In particular, Giolito did not shy away from using it against right-handed hitters on Sunday against the Rays. He threw eight changeups to right-handed hitters against Tampa Bay, and while that was one fewer than he threw to Detroit the start before, the Rays had a far more balanced lineup.
- vs. Detroit: Nine changeups out of 87 pitches to righties.
- vs. Tampa Bay: Eight changeups out of 44 pitches to righties.
He threw five of them to Steven Souza Jr., whom Giolito struck out all three times. Souza’s postgame reaction suggested surprise played into Giolito’s favor:
"With a guy like that (Giolito), you don't expect him to command — I mean, we've been watching video on him for the last week, and he hasn't commanded those two pitches, his changeup and curveball, all week long," Rays outfielder Steven Souza said. "So you come out here and for anybody in the league to throw three pitches for strikes, it's going to be a tough battle."
The part about the command is true. Giolito got by with changeups against Minnesota because he couldn’t throw a breaking ball for strikes, and they figured that out in the later innings. Against the Tigers, he threw a lot of bad changeups, but they had to be on the alert for Giolito’s whole arsenal.
Against the Rays, the circumstances were somewhere in between. He didn’t have command of his breaking pitches for strike-grabbing purposes early, but even when those started coming to him, he didn’t back off his offspeed stuff. He just liked throwing it, and when you look at the pitch chart, it appears that he had his release point.
As you might guess, none of these were put into play. The five uppermost changes were foul balls, while two of the bottom three were balls (the middle was a swinging strike). Same-sided changeups are great pitches for harmless strikes with this kind of location. To borrow from Hawk Harrelson, it takes short arms in order to keep them fair. The risk is that a righty’s bad changeups will stay in a right-handed hitter’s swing path for longer if left over the plate, but that’s where the confidence in the pitch comes into play. Detroit was “fake it until you make it,” and Tampa Bay was “making it.”
Lopez is kinda going through the same thing right now, in that he’s going to his changeup far more often than his history suggests. The year-over-year comparison via Brooks Baseball:
- 2016: 64.3% FB, 25.3% CB, 10.4% CH
- 2017: 57.9% FB, 26.5% CH, 15.6% CB
The changeup has been Lopez’s clear second pitch for the White Sox over his three starts, but it’s not quite as easy to determine his confidence level because of the trip to the disabled list in the middle of it. In his injury-shortened start against the Rangers, he showed his changeup plenty the first time through. Then his side/back started acting up on him, and he threw it even more in an attempt to junk his way through it, because his velocity had dropped off noticeably.
Lopez’s three outings comprise one debut, one injury-hampered outing and one return from injury, so I’m reluctant to make any firm conclusions on the state of his stuff. The reliance on the changeup could be a result of the environment, rather than a carefully considered choice.
Tying together healthy, unencumbered starts will tell, and Lopez has four weeks to work with. Often times, rebuilding seasons can’t end soon enough, but high-profile rookie pitchers make it easier to sustain interest all the way through to the end.