CHICAGO – Outside baseball, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is not a very patient man. He wants what he wants when he wants it. And now. But in the game, he knows to wait. He’s had to do that with a lot of players over the years, and this year that waiting has brought the Lucas Giolito who he long hoped would arrive.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I know it takes time,” Cooper told Sporting News. “I know the exception to the rule is when somebody comes up, kicks ass, and the rest is history.”
When the White Sox traded for Giolito in December 2016, he brought with him the expectations of a first-round draft pick and a piece of the Chicago rebuild that at the time was just getting underway. In 2016, he pitched only 21 mostly disastrous innings in the majors for the Nationals. The next season, Giolito spent most of the year in Triple-A, and then when he debuted with the White Sox he had a 2.38 ERA in seven starts. He struck out 34 and walked only 12. But last season, his first full year in the majors, went terribly. Giolito led the league in walks and earned runs and was chased out of several starts by the second or third inning. Outside the White Sox organization, there was a collective throwing up of hands. Though Giolito was just 23, many fans in Chicago were ready to be done with him.
“The thing in this town is ‘run ’em out of town, get ’em outta here,'” Cooper said. “And it’s just not the way we’re gonna do it. Sometimes they’re just not ready to give what you want right away.”
This has been true of many of baseball’s greatest pitchers. Nineteen-year-old Nolan Ryan’s brief look with the Mets in 1966 went terribly. At 20, Greg Maddux debuted with the Cubs in 1986 and gave up 19 earned runs and 44 hits in 31 innings. Justin Verlander got to the majors in 2005 when he was 22 and gave up twice as many hits as he had strikeouts. And Cooper compares Giolito to another former first-rounder the White Sox traded for a couple of decades ago. Jon Garland was drafted 10th overall by the Cubs in 1997, and when he came up as a rookie in 2000 his numbers had a striking resemblance to what Giolito did in 2018.
“Everybody was expecting more than he was ready to give,” Cooper said of Garland. “But we had patience with him and years later he’s helping us win a championship.”
Giolito has had to learn this patience too.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to live up to those expectations,” he told SN. “And then when I didn’t do it, instead of taking a step back, I just kept pressing more and more.”
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Through his first eight starts this season, Giolito seems to have turned a corner. Overall, his ERA is close to half of what it was in 2018, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has gone from 1.39 to 2.78. More importantly, he’s not getting rattled like he used to. Giolito said that in the past he might not have been fully locked in during the first inning of his starts, and a few bad at-bats could easily send things into a tailspin. He’s learning to focus on simple things like pausing to take a breath when an inning starts to feel like it’s getting away from him and accepting that sometimes his best effort might be just to limit damage and not let an inning get out of control. One run allowed isn’t the end of the world.
“Last year, I was having a bunch of blow-up games. Having games where I’d lose control emotionally, mentally,” Giolito said. “Now I’ll be in a similar situation, and it’s like, ‘I’ve been here before, I’ve already done all that. That doesn’t help.’ Let me choose to go this other direction, where I got back to my breath, reset, focus on the next pitch.”
Giolito’s battery mate this year, James McCann, spent the past two seasons watching those implosions from across the diamond as a member of the Tigers. He and his teammates could tell right away the days when they could get to Giolito easily, McCann said, and the days when they couldn’t. It was written all over Giolito’s face, and the difference was significant enough that McCann said it was almost like facing two different pitchers. When he signed with the White Sox in December, one of the first things he did when he met with his new pitcher was to tell him about what he called “The two Lucas Giolitos.”
“We can’t have that,” McCann told Giolito when they met. “We have to have the same body language, the same presence, everything, day in and day out. I don’t care if you give up 10 runs or throw a perfect game, you can’t be a different guy.”
McCann said that after spending several seasons playing alongside guys like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, he saw the importance of always staying confident, or at least projecting confidence, even when you’re struggling. In the midst of an 0-for-30 slump, act like you’re batting .600 with a homer in each of your past 10 at-bats, and do this while ignoring the constant dissection of your every move. The way you walk on the field, the way you wear your uniform, the way you throw a ball.
For Giolito, that meant he needed to let go of the bad innings and the bad outings and not let them pile on top of each other.
Giolito said that new teammate Yonder Alonso also pointed out the same thing that McCann had. Alonso told him that the way he would let his attitude come with him from the mound to the dugout and back was written on his face – and they could see it and smell the blood in the water.
The best example of how far Giolito has come, McCann said, is his start against the Blue Jays in Toronto on May 12. He gave up three hits and a run in the first inning, but instead of caving and letting the game spiral out of control he went on to allow just one other hit the rest of the game on his way to a one-run, seven-inning quality start in which he struck out eight and walked only one batter.
“That’s a different guy than last year,” McCann said. “This year, mentally, he’s able to focus on each pitch for what it is and not allow that rough start to affect his whole outing.”
Giolito’s improvement goes further than what’s between the ears. After 2018, he recognized that his arm action was too long, and that was allowing too much room for mistakes in his delivery. To correct this, Giolito spent the first couple of weeks of his offseason throwing two different weighted balls, one 300 grams and the other a little lighter. He’d throw nothing but those, over and over, against a wall. After that, he picked up a baseball for the first time in weeks and noticed right away that his arm action had shortened like he wanted it to.
“It makes the misses smaller,” he said. “I miss more to the side of the plate that I’m going to instead of missing over the middle. It’s cleaned up a lot of things.”
But it hasn’t been easy sorting things out. He got to the point in 2018 where he stopped checking social media after he’d pitch because it only compounded the negativity he was feeling. Fans had spent years reading about his high potential and had waited for him to consistently demonstrate that the 80-grade excitement was well-founded. And the reactionary microwave of thought that is so much of social media didn’t help with fans’ patience.
“So much of not just baseball, but society, so much of it is based on instant gratification,” Giolito said. “I’m part of it, you know. Sometimes without thinking, I’m scrolling through Twitter for no reason, Instagram. You’re constantly looking for that dopamine hit or whatever.”
Fans would shower him with outright hate sometimes, but Giolito learned to ignore it or set it aside, and he said that he understood some part of it despite the negativity.
“You eventually have to be like, ‘All right, this isn’t real.’ Some random dude telling me after a bad start that I should be blown off to the moon is like, he’s just frustrated because he’s a big fan of the team and wants to see us play better,” Giolito said. “When you look at it and start to take things personally from people you’ve never met in your life, that’s when issues can occur. I got a lot of hate last year, and at a certain point I was like, ‘All right, it does me no good to read this and feel bad about myself,’ so I just turned it off.”
Cooper, for all his impatience away from the ballpark, wishes that fans and writers had better perspective. It might help with their patience.
“Their attackers, wherever they are on social media, they’d get tired chasing them around, following them. They have no idea,” Cooper said. “Everybody sees the game at 7:10. They don’t see at 1 o’clock what they’re doing every day to pay the price for the success that they’re looking for.”
Cooper has been around long enough to have seen a lot of young players come and go, and he knows that for most of them it takes time to see what kind of player they turn out to be. Thankfully, the modern culture of hyper-analysis and the constant feedback loop didn’t eat up Giolito before he had a chance to prove himself. Even the eventual Hall of Famers who didn’t start off as world beaters needed a chance to sort it all out.
“They didn’t grab the brass ring the first time around the merry-go-round. You needed to have patience with them,” Cooper said. “So shouldn’t everybody else be afforded that patience?”
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