In mid-June, major league pitchers were forced to conform to the league’s newfound interest in enforcing the use of grip substances — of any type — on the mound.
Forget about Spider Tack. Even the time-tested, barely edge-producing concoction of sunscreen and rosin was outlawed, and guys had to adjust accordingly.
A level playing field is all well and good, naturally. But, as we saw earlier this summer, such a dramatic turning of the tables — in the middle of the season, no less — had its designed ripple effects.
Offense up, strikeouts down. You know, the usual. Adapt or die, as they say. For Chicago White Sox righthander Lucas Giolito, the hurdles were a bit higher.
Giolito was budding into the young stud Chicago had hoped he would after arriving from Washington in the Adam Eaton trade in late 2016, no doubt. Injuries and continued development through that adversity set him back, but he persevered.
After making noticeable yet incremental strides (3.43 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 325 K over 249 combined innings in 2019 and 2020), the 27-year-old SoCal product was scuffling early on in 2021, pitching to a 4.97 ERA over his first eight starts of the year.
Giolito’s 1.16 home runs allowed per nine innings through 2019 and 2020 had ballooned to a staggering 1.73 mark (eight homers in 41 2⁄3 innings) with the righty issuing 18 free passes over that span, after walking just 28 batters total over 72 1⁄3 innings in 2020.
He’d find a rhythm (three earned runs over three starts from May 19 through the end of the month; 1.29 ERA, 12.00 K/9, 2.57 BB/9), but that uptick would be short-lived, as well.
So not only was Lucas Giolito battling his own inconsistencies, Major League Baseball’s Save The Offense campaign (like Greenpeace, but with a focus on the conservation of annual revenue dollars) was about to make that incline a bit steeper.
Everybody uses something for grip. Some guys took it too far, as they will, and it ended the party for everyone. These things happen. Keep it moving, or fall behind. That’s the only play, in baseball and life.
The spin rate on Giolito’s 4-seam suffered glaringly, as did that of many MLB hurlers, once MLB began stop-and-frisking pitchers for substances on June 21 (don’t even get me started on how bad that look is). Giolito’s heater lost exactly 250 rpm in average spin rate (2,476 to 2,226) between June 16 and June 22, dipping as low as 2,198 rpm on July 10 before rebounding.
For what it’s worth, the lack of vertical break on Gio’s 4-seam despite the decrease in spin has remained elite. His 12 inches of average drop ranks seventh in the majors (Dylan Cease, -10.7´´, is tied for best in the majors with Gerrit Cole: wow).
Batters were hitting .225 against Giolito’s fastball from the start of the season through June 16. From June 22 through July 10, that metric increased to .310. Clearly, adjustments were being made in light of new, league-wide circumstances.
But, just as ballplayers tend to do, Giolito emerged from that fog, rediscovering his All-Star form along the way. And it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the White Sox.
Through seven second-half starts, Giolito has pitched to a 2.86 ERA with 0.93 WHIP and an 83.9% left-on-base rate (16th, fifth, and 14th among qualified MLB starters over that span).
Oh, and that includes Gio’s six-run implosion against the Royals on August 4. Take that dud out of the equation, and Giolito has a 1.80 ERA over that stretch. Ace-level stuff.
Per FanGraphs, Chicago’s starting rotation has accumulated more WAR than any other American League team (15.0), trailing only Milwaukee for the MLB lead (15.6).
Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón (expected to return in Toronto), Dallas Keuchel, Cease, and Giolito have the chops to make waves in October. That foundation (as well as its depth cogs), along with the Sox’s revamped bullpen and first-class offense, has the potential to carry this group even further.
Exciting times on the South Side.