When going to see top-tier pitching prospects while they’re still in the minor leagues, you can often expect to see at least one pitch in their repertoire that stands out above all as “that pitch” that “you need to see”. Maybe you saw Gerrit Cole’s routinely ridiculous fastball sit comfortably in the 96-98 MPH range while he was in Double-A. Maybe you got a glimpse of Taijuan Walker’s 92 MPH cutter as he was tearing up the Midwest League. Or perhaps you were #blessed by the presence of Kevin Gausman’s particularly obscene change-up. This year, the pitch that has received high praise from both real scouts and Twitter-scouts alike, is Lucas Giolito’s curveball. Often referred to as “the greatest breaking ball in the history of modern civilization”, Giolito’s hammer of a curve has earned rave reviews all year long. I saw Giolito pitch in mid-June at home against Greenville, and the curve was all that it had been hyped up to be. Low-A hitters had essentially no chance to square it up, let alone make contact at all. In that June outing, Giolito relied heavily on getting ahead in the count with fastballs low in the zone, and utilized the curve as his failproof out pitch whenever he needed it. His third pitch, a developing change-up, was used sparingly and clearly needed some work. Last night, I saw Lucas Giolito pitch for the second time this year. He allowed two hits through five shutout innings while walking two and striking out six Delmarva hitters. He did not throw a single curveball.
After two innings of work, it became fairly apparent what Giolito’s plan was: pound fastballs down in the zone until he needed to get the hitter off-balance; that’s when he would go to his much-improved change-up. He threw all fastballs in the first inning, all in the 92-95 range with consistent life. Back in June, he ran his fastball up to 97-98, but it straightened out significantly, allowing hitters to see it better and square it up rather easily. He now works consistently in the low-to-mid 90’s with more movement than ever. It was fascinating to watch Giolito pitch out of situations in which you just knew he could finish the hitter off with the curve. I have zero insight into what the Delmarva hitters were expecting from Giolito, but it was fairly incredible to watch them struggle so mightily against a pitcher who was clearly only throwing two pitches. In the first inning, Delmarva third baseman Drew Dosch worked himself into a hitter’s count before drilling a low fastball into the left-center field gap for a single. He appeared to be the only hitter seeing the ball well…or so I thought. In his second at-bat, Dosch swung through three consecutive change-ups, looking equally stupid on each hapless swing. The sequences became weirdly predictable yet unhittable. My favorite sequence of the night had to be to Delmarva catcher Chance Sisco in the bottom of the fourth inning. After fouling off the first pitch, Sisco watched a remarkably well-located fastball low and inside go by for strike two. As Sisco stepped out of the box to mentally prepare himself for the inevitable embarrassment that was to follow, I turned to my brother and said “change-up, fading away, strike three swinging”. I started walking away, eager to get my fourth Dr. Pepper of the evening. Sure enough, Sisco swung right over the top of the 0-2 change-up from Giolito and the inning was over.
As much as I enjoyed watching Giolito dominate with only two pitches, I was still curious as to why he wasn’t using the curve at all. I wondered if this was another situation where the organization had taken away his best pitch in order to force him to develop his weaker ones, à la Dylan Bundy not being allowed to throw his cutter in the minors. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. “I decided to take away my best out pitch so I can work on my weaknesses”, Giolito said. “Those weaknesses being spotting up low in the zone instead of trying to overpower guys by throwing really hard and building consistency with my change-up.” This kind of approach may have frustrated those in the stands eager to see his supreme breaking ball, but it’s the kind of approach that will most certainly help Giolito develop into a pitcher that can dominate at any level, not just Low-A. Giolito is now 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 93.0 innings. He’s been too good for the level for months now, but he’s not going anywhere; the Nationals will almost certainly keep him in Hagerstown for the rest of the season. Both his and the Nationals’ main focus is getting him through his first year of full-season baseball completely healthy after his lengthy rehab from Tommy John Surgery. Next year, the training wheels come off. The Giolito hype-train will soon be as powerful as the Silver Bullet that mercilessly ravages countless neighborhoods in all those Coors Light commercials, except instead of giving everyone Coors Light, it gives everyone their own .gif of Giolito’s curveball. Kinda like this one: