Every major league pitcher has bad days, bad weeks and occasionally bad months. But not many ever have seasons as consistently awful as Lucas Giolito had in 2018. In his first full season, the White Sox right-hander lost 13 games and won only 10. He walked 90 batters, gave up 118 earned runs — both more than any other American League pitcher — and his ERA was a tragic 6.13.
He couldn’t keep hitters from hitting, and he couldn’t keep them from advancing. Opponents stole bases in bunches while he was on the mound. On the bright side, he wasn’t the worst pitcher in baseball, according to one authoritative stat compiled by Baseball Prospectus. He was the second-worst.
Guys who have seasons that bad are often absent the next season, because they had an injury requiring surgery, were sent back to the minors or launched a new career at Home Depot. But Giolito kept his spot on the Sox roster, worked hard over the winter and made some adjustments.
His first few outings looked like a rerun of 2018. But then something clicked into place, and since then, he’s been a batter’s nightmare. This season, he hasn’t been the second-worst pitcher in the big leagues; he’s been the best, compiling a 10-1 record and a 2.22 ERA, with two complete games and a shutout. In his three June starts, he’s given up a total of one earned run, for an ERA of 0.43. Walks and stolen bases are way down.
He’s done all this on a team that is below .500, and one that draws far fewer fans and gets far less media attention than Chicago’s other major league club. Halfway through the season, Giolito is a sure bet to make the All-Star team — and if this year’s numbers are the measure, he should be the starter. No pitcher in major league history, it appears, has ever made such a dramatic improvement from one season to the next.
His performance is a lesson in perseverance, faith in oneself and willingness to adapt to adverse circumstances. It’s also a reminder of what novelist John Updike once referred to, in reference to baseball, as “the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.”
How could he have made such a huge turnaround? No one thing. He simplified his delivery, improved his change-up and adopted a sidestep to give base runners less time to steal. He took some pointed advice from Sox Hall of Fame slugger Frank Thomas, who told him, “You need to pitch inside more.” He says he’s learned to maintain his composure and focus regardless of how things go. Success has been the sum of many small changes.