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Dodgers free agent target: Lucas Giolito

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Josh Salce Josh Salce is a Southern California native and lifelong Dodger fan. He is a recent graduate from UC San Diego with a B.S. in Cognitive Science, and is currently pursuing a career in baseball analytics and research. You can find more of his original work at medium.com/@joshsalce.

The Dodgers have a big task this offseason to prepare for 2024. In addition to the often-discussed Shohei Ohtani, members of baseball media like The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal argue that the Dodgers are in need of multiple starting pitchers. The rotation has become extremely thin, with Lance Lynn’s option declined, Julio Urías hitting free agency while under investigation for domestic violence, and with Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, and free agent Clayton Kershaw unavailable until at least the summer, if at all.

Currently, the Dodger’s top starting options include veterans Walker Buehler and Ryan Yarbrough, along with young right-handers in Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, Emmett Sheehan, and Gavin Stone. If the Dodgers are to acquire multiple pitchers, they will obviously shop for top names, such as free agents Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, and Sonny Gray. Some options from the trade market include Dylan Cease, Corbin Burnes, and Tyler Glasnow as well. However, given the usual restraint exercised by the Dodgers’ front office to not spend large amounts of money at a single time, they might go for cheaper depth options as well. One to keep an eye on is longtime White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito.

Who is Lucas Giolito?

Giolito is a former first-round pick of the Washington Nationals out of Los Angeles’ Harvard-Westlake High School. At 29, the first-time free agent has had an up-and-down career. After graduating to the majors as a top prospect and being traded to the Chicago White Sox as a rookie, he struggled early, earning the title of worst qualified starter for his first full season in 2018. In 2019, he underwent mechanical changes that led to a breakout stretch including three straight seasons of leading the White Sox rotation and earning Cy Young votes, boasting a combined 3.47 ERA from 2019-2021.

Since then, he has struggled to continue that success, pitching to a combined 4.89 ERA over the last two seasons. While Giolito’s specialty is being a strikeout and flyball pitcher, the strikeouts have dramatically declined, from 30.8 percent from 2019-2021 to 25.6 percent in 2022-2023. In addition, he has gotten hit harder since his breakout stretch, with his hard-hit rate rising from 34.5 percent from 2019-2021 to 39 percent in 2022 and 41.3 percent in 2023.

What does he throw?

Lucas Giolito 2023 pitch arsenal

Pitch type Usage Velocity (mph) Spin rate (rpm) Stuff+
Pitch type Usage Velocity (mph) Spin rate (rpm) Stuff+
4-seam fastball 44.4% 93.1 2,173 84
Slider 24.6% 84.0 1,979 107
Changeup 28.6% 80.9 1,979 99
Curveball 2.5% 77.9 2,334 81
Sources: Alex Chamberlain & FanGraphs

Note: Stuff+ is a pitch-quality metric created by The Athletic’s Eno Sarris. More can be read about it here.

Giolito’s regression has coincided with the decline of his fastball. Put simply, it has not been as good since June 16, 2021, when on-field foreign substance inspections by umpires began. Compared to his fastball before then, he has lost around 1 mph of velocity and over one inch of vertical and horizontal movement. That has been enough to turn it from a very good fastball to a startlingly bad one by Stuff+. Whiffs, especially those at the top of the zone, have become less frequent, converting what would be swinging strikes into more frequent and harder contact.

Lucas Giolito fastball characteristics, 2021-23

Date(s) Velocity (mph) Spin rate (rpm) Vertical Mvt. (in.) Horizontal Mvt. (in.) Whiff % Stuff+
Date(s) Velocity (mph) Spin rate (rpm) Vertical Mvt. (in.) Horizontal Mvt. (in.) Whiff % Stuff+
Apr 1-June 15, 2021 93.7 2,427 19.4 -7.5 22.8% 117
June 16-Oct 3, 2021 93.9 2,285 18.8 -6.1 27.7% 104
2022 92.6 2,172 18.0 -5.4 21.3% 85
2023 93.1 2,173 18.1 -5.5 20.0% 84

The quality and performance of the fastball would be the main argument against signing Giolito. The argument in favor is that he still has two good secondary pitches and has put together good stretches within the last two seasons. Despite a 4.90 ERA, other ERA estimators were more optimistic, as evidenced by his 4.06 FIP/3.79 SIERA for 2022. In the first half of 2023, he also pitched to a 3.45 ERA and 4.18 FIP, so there is still at least a serviceable starting pitcher in Giolito. By today’s standards, he is also valuable from his ability to be available, as he ranks seventh in innings pitched (773⅔) and is tied for sixth in games started (135) since 2019.

One reason for optimism about Giolito potentially being a Dodger is that he carries a similar profile to pitchers signed by the Dodgers as reclamation projects that end up becoming key contributors. Think of Rich Hill, Blake Treinen, Evan Phillips, Andrew Heaney, and Tyler Anderson. If he became a Dodger, Giolito would for the first time begin a season with an organization that has evidence of improving acquired pitchers. If there was anyone who has the best chance at recapturing some of his past form, it would be the Dodgers. Those chances, however, hinge on adjustments to the fastball that can restore its velocity and movement (without foreign substances), or through other tweaks that makes the fastball less important to his pitching approach. If this could be done, he has the potential to slot right into the middle of the rotation.

Even if his fastball cannot be improved, Giolito can be, at minimum, an innings-eater of the Kenta Maeda-type rather than the Noah Syndergaard-type. In talking about his poor second half of 2023, Giolito recently stated in an interview with Jomboy Media’s Chris Rose that he put a lot of pressure on himself to be “The Guy” when he was traded to the Angels at the trade deadline. Being close to home in the Dodgers organization where he will not be asked to be “The Guy” can only help him in his quest to achieve some consistency and rebound into a quality starting pitcher.

Given the pitcher he is and the pitcher he potentially can be, Giolito can be trusted to be reliable, take the ball every fifth time, pitch five to seven innings, and give his team a chance to always win. With consistent durability, innings-eater downside, and mid-rotation upside, Giolito could be a major pickup for a Dodgers rotation still in the same position as last year: wrought with injuries and in need of some stability.