When a teenage pitcher is ranked among the sport’s top prospects prior to his full-season debut, it’s a pretty big deal. After all, with a young arm, any number of things might happen in the coming years that could derail his development and affect his future projection.
Yet, despite the inherent risk and volatility tied to high-risk/reward arms, the entire baseball industry seemed to be all-in on Lucas Giolito entering the season. Here at Prospect Pipeline, we ranked Giolito as the No. 15 prospect for 2014.
Giolito, 19, was viewed as a candidate to go No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft after the right-hander lit up radar guns with his fastball and dropped jaws with his curveball early in the spring for Harvard-Westlake School (Calif.).
Unfortunately, Giolito suffered a strained ligament in his right elbow roughly two months into the season and was shut down indefinitely. He avoided surgery, but the injury ultimately cost Giolito the remainder of his high school campaign and the chance to be the first prep right-hander drafted No. 1 overall.
Yet, even though Giolito missed most of the spring, the Washington Nationals still selected the right-hander with the No. 16 overall selection in the 2012 draft and offered him a $2.925 million signing bonus.
Making his first professional start later that summer, Giolito made it just two innings in the game before his elbow flared up once again. This time, however, there would be no rest and rehab, as he was forced to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery.
After 10 months on the shelf, Giolito wasted no time making an impact late last summer following his return to the mound, as his first three pitches for the rookie-level Nationals in the Gulf Coast League each registered at 100 mph, according to Baseball America (subscription required).
Between eight starts in the GCL and three more for short-season Auburn in the New York-Penn League, Giolito posted a 1.96 ERA and 39-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36.2 innings.
Last Thursday, I got my first look at the 6'6", 225-pound Giolito, and suffice it to say the right-hander showed exactly why he’s one of baseball’s elite pitching prospects.
Making his second start of the season, the 19-year-old Giolito fired five shutout innings against Low-A Lakewood (Phillies), allowing a hit and walk while striking out six batters. He never threw more than 17 pitches in an inning and needed only 61 to complete the outing. The lone hit he surrendered was a two-out double to Samuel Hiciano in the third inning. Besides that, it was mostly strikeouts and weak contact (six groundouts, one flyout).
Giolito’s fastball sat at 92 to 95 mph, and he maintained the velocity for the entire outing, which was impressive in itself given he was making just his second start of the season and did so on a cold, blustery New Jersey night.
From what I could discern, Giolito used both a two- and four-seam fastball in the game, with the latter consistently registering in the 94 to 95 range and the two-seamer at 91 to 93. Based on velocity alone, the pitch graded mostly as a 65 or 70 in the game. But everything about Giolito—his size, mechanics, arm action, prior workload—suggests that more velocity will come with development, and it doesn’t take much to envision him sitting in the upper 90s by the time he reaches the major leagues.
In terms of usage, Giolito threw more four-seamers to left-handed batters, and he did a nice job changing hitters’ eye levels vertically so as to set up both secondary offerings. He overthrew a few of them over the course of the game, ripping open with his glove side and falling off toward first base, but he was quick to correct his mechanics during subsequent pitches and never lost a feel for the strike zone.
Giolito demonstrated a similarly strong feel for pounding the zone with his two-seamer in the outing, using the pitch to effectively work the inner half of the plate against right-handed batters. Granted it was chilly weather and just his second start of the season, but I was somewhat surprised by the pitch’s relative straightness compared to his four-seamer.
Giolito’s curveball is probably the best I’ve personally scouted in the last four years; it’s a 60/65 offering that has the potential to add a full grade as he moves up the ladder. Working from the same over-the-top arm angle as his fastball, the right-hander threw his curveball in the 76 to 83 mph range with legitimate 12-to-6 break and sharp, downer bite.
He showed the ability to add and subtract with the pitch depending on the batter and count, consistently throwing it 78 to 81 mph for a called strike and then throwing a harder-biting version at 82 to 83 mph when vying for a whiff.
After hearing so much about Giolito’s fastball and curveball heading into the game, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by both the consistency and effectiveness of his changeup. The right-hander only threw the pitch three times in the outing, each coming against a left-handed batter, and managed to generate both a whiff and groundout (in the same at-bat against Larry Greene). Though it was a small sample, Giolito’s changeup at least grades as a present 50, and considering his overall room for improvement on all fronts, the pitch has the potential to be a 60/65 offering at maturity.
That being said, I would like to see better speed differential between his curveball and changeup moving forward. It’s not an issue that will impact his success against hitters in the low minors, but once he reaches the Double- and Triple-A levels, guys will be able to adjust to each specific offering simply knowing it’ll arrive in a certain velocity range.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot can happen to a 19-year-old pitcher in A-ball between now and the time he reaches the major leagues. However, if Giolito stays healthy and continues down his current developmental path, the right-hander should have the chance to be a legitimate No. 1 starter.
Giolito is entirely too good to remain at Low-A Hagerstown for an extended period of time. However, the Nationals traditionally have been careful with their Tommy John pitchers (Strasburg, Zimmermann, Jordan), holding them to a strict innings limit in the first full year following their return to the mound. So expect them to handle Giolito no differently.
The right-hander should still receive promotions over the course of the season—likely based on some type of preseason timeline implemented by the organization—and if his start last week is an indication of what’s to come, I wouldn’t be surprised if he finishes the year in Double-A, putting him on pace for an arrival in the majors at some point in 2015.
*All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.