Monday, Lucas Gioltio threw a no-hitter against my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. You probably heard about it. Only the Rangers have been more putrid than the Pirates with the bat this season. Watching the Pirates requires a lot of cheap beer so I can yell, “YINZ SUCK!” at the screen. God, I miss Yuengling. But that shouldn’t take away from how exceptionally dominant Giolito was. He racked up 30 swings and misses. 30!!! And he registered a whiff% of 54%, a truly absurd number. That means when the Pirates swung the bat, they missed over half the time.
Giolito flirted with an outing like Monday before, but it all clicked against the Pirates. In the ninth inning, he generated swings and misses multiple times with his changeup and slider and threw his second hardest pitch of the night – 96.6 MPH – to end the game.
A couple years ago, Giolito, selected No. 16 overall by the Nationals in the 2012 MLB Draft, was staring down the ‘bust’ label. In his first full season in 2018 with the White Sox, the big righty couldn’t throw strikes, struck out guys like he had Jamie Moyer’s stuff, and finished with a 6.13 ERA and 5.56 FIP. A big guy known for a big fastball was throwing his four-seamer 92.4 MPH on average. That's like a changeup for some guys.
Listed at 6-6, 245 pounds, Giolito is, obviously, a big dude. Yes, I attended the Pittsburgh Pirates' Scout School, thank you very much. Big dudes often have a long arm action and can have trouble throwing strikes, getting on top of their breaking stuff, and repeating their delivery compared to their shorter, lighter colleagues.
Remember Tyler Kolek? In 2014, the Marlins selected the 6-5, 260-pound righty No. 2 overall out of Shepherd High School in Texas after he reportedly touched 102 MPH. Not long ago, a scouting report that included a big, physical Texas righthander with a triple-digit fastball would get a first-round grade before the report could finish. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but selling owners and decision-makers on that type of pitcher was a layup. In 2016, Kolek underwent Tommy John surgery, like Giolito did almost immediately after he was signed, and hasn’t pitched above A+.
In recent years, scouts and MLB personnel have changed the way they think about the classic big, hard-throwing prep arms because the bust rate is rising. Giolito would have fit into that group. Then, he changed. Let's roll the tape beginning with a 2018 clip:
You'll notice the long arm path that shows, from this angle, way behind his back. And you'll also notice a late arm when Giolito's foot plants with a poor relationship between his lower half and his arm.
Now, let's take a look at a 97-MPH heater in 2020:
Ah, yeah. That's the first-round, power stuff. You can get high off it in Chicago right now. Giolito has a more athletic, better-timed delivery with more a relationship between his lower half and hips working to help his arm. Most importantly, you'll notice a distinct change in the length and path of the arm as it works back and then towards the plate. A couple still shots:
It might not seem like much, but consider he's 6-5 with a big body. So, even what might appear to the naked eye as a minor adjustment in arm path/action could mean a huge difference for a pitcher. And I'd absolutely argue what Giolito did was a huge change, which isn't easy to learn and implement.
With a new delivery, and specifically a new arm action, Giolito went from 6.49 K/9 and 4.67 BB/9 in 2018 to 11.62 and 2.90, respectively, in 2019. The big righty followed 0.1 fWAR and a 5.56 FIP with 5.1 fWAR and a 3.43 FIP. Only three starting pitchers had a higher K% in 2019: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Right now, shorter, cleaner arm action is the hip new kid on the block and it’s how organizations like the Indians keep developing quality starting pitching. Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac acting a fool? Let’s just call up Triston McKenzie, who hasn’t pitched in a professional game since 2018, for his debut and watch him throw 97 MPH, despite maybe weighing 165 pounds at 6-5, and punch out 10 Tigers efficiently. Just a day in the life for the organizations who are investing correctly and developing their pitching.
Pitching development matters a lot. It might matter more than anything in baseball right now. Is it as simple as saying, “hey, this big guy has a really long arm action and needs a delivery change” during the offseason? No. Hell, I can do that. The teams and players who can identify issues and actually develop change and results are going to have a leg up on the competition.
The White Sox unlocked an ace. The Indians keep developing studs. The Rays fixed 6-9 Tyler Glasnow. The Reds are getting the most out of Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray while also producing better versions Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone and Tyler Mahle. The Astros keep bringing up rookies who strike out a lot of batters while tweaking the spin and pitch arsenal of aces. The Dodgers have so much pitching Tony Gonsolin is just hanging out and racking up a fare on the taxi squad. And we're already seeing other organizations betting on their ability to do the same, like the Red Sox, under new boss Chaim Bloom, acquiring Nick Pivetta, another big starting pitcher who shortened his arm action with the help of Giolito.
Meanwhile, the Angels can’t surround one of the game’s greatest players with enough pitching despite investing in it over and over again. They're arguably the worst team in baseball despite Mike Trout having a solid season, Anthony Rendon ranking fifth in fWAR, and David Fletcher ranking 14th. Pitching development mattered. It saved Giolito's career and unlocked his talent, and it's allowing some of the lower payroll teams compete with the big boys. Those organizations that aren't up to speed are going to be left behind.
Photos courtesy AP Images and videos courtesy Baseball Savant