If you haven't been paying attention Lucas Giolito has been getting a lot of high marks as a prospect for a while now. Baseball Prospectus currently has him at #3, as does ESPN's Keith Law and MLB.com. Sickels had him at #3 last year. He's thought to be a sure thing, a lock, as much a can't-miss as a pitching prospect can be. He's actually been called a rotational "demi-god". Even I, who tends to downplay, won't try to tell you that Giolito won't be an impact arm for the Nationals in the future.
However, commenter BJD1207 asked if I could temper the Giolito love. Can I bring a fan soaring on high expectations, down to Earth?
Of course I can! The easy way would be to go the "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect" route. These guys are notoriously fickle and big gambles. Or we could go with the "He could get injured at any moment!" However, that's a bit too easy. I wanted something a bit more substantial. So I dug around until I found some things I feel you can hang onto... you know, if you want to downplay expectations.
These aren't going to be great reasons. All these pundits aren't wrong. Giolito is a great prospect. But without further adieu :
THREE REASONS YOU SHOULDN'T BE SUPER SUPER EXCITED ABOUT LUCAS GIOLITO
Reason #1 : The fact he did great as a 19-year old in A ball doesn't mean much.
Prospects get love because of skills, but they also get love because of production and Lucas Giolito was damn productive as a 19 year old in A ball in 2014. That's part of why he gets a lot of excitement behind him. He threw 100 innings of 1.00 WHIP ball basically showing no problems dominating guys around 2-3 years older. This would seemingly be a good indicator of future success but historically we actually don't see that.
I took a look at all 19 year olds (age is impt here - no 18 year olds or 20 year olds allowed) who had a WHIP of less than 1.100 in the Sally League (that's important too - sometimes these leagues are very different in results) over the past decade to see how these type of seasons predicted future success. Here is what I saw :
Tyler Glasnow - doing well, likely to debut in 2016
Clayton Blackburn - doing well, though less dominant, likely to debut in 2016
Jose Fernandez - Immediately impressive in 2013, injured
Arodys Vizcaino - injury prone, finally put up a good major league season in 2015... in relief
Casey Kelly - injured, has not pitched a good season yet
Kelvin de la Cruz - hit wall in AA, never made it.
Carlos Carrasco- hit wall in majors, injured, eventually had a good major league year in 2014.
Wil Inman - struggled through AA and AAA, converted to relief, never made it
Troy Patton - hit wall in AAA, converted to reliever, had several decent major league seasons... in relief.
Gio Gonzalez - Hey! Gio! A bit of an struggle upon initial debut. Good to very good major league pitcher since 2010
Gaby Hernandez - Hit wall in AA, never made it.
Phil Hughes- struggled in majors for a long while, finally had a decent full year as starter in 2012 and a good one in 2014
Matt Harrison - struggled in majors for few years, had good years in 2011 and 2012 before losing it
At least over the last 10 years this hasn't been predictive. There are a number of reasons why: lucky A-ball years being exposed, injury, talent hitting its level in upper leagues, small sample size, but it's not nothing. I especially think that this tells us that the idea that Giolito will be very good in the majors in 2016 or 2017 might be reaching. Out of 12 (Glasnow excluded for this) the only one to have a very good year within 3 years of his A-ball performance was Jose Fernandez. All these other guys, nearly all Top 100 prospects took at least 5 years to do it, if they ever did.
"But Harper", you say, "Giolito is like Jose Fernandez! He's not like these other guys! He's a stud!" Funny you should say that because comparison to other pitching studs is what the next reason is all about.
Reason #2 : The dominant pitchers of today were better in the minors than Lucas Giolito
Lucas Giolito is like Jose Fernandez you say? Well what the above should tell you is while they match up as 19 year olds Jose Fernandez was dominating in the majors at age 20 while Giolito was working on adapting to AA ball. This isn't an isolated case. If we look at the dominant pitchers of 2015 who were drafted out of high school we see notable differences from Giolito's minor league experience.
Zack Greinke - at 19 had no problems in AA, at 20 dominated in AAA and debuted.
Clayton Kershaw - at 20 really dominated AA and debuted.
Madison Bumgarner - at 19 dominated AA and debuted, at 20 had a Top 25 PCL year before sticking in majors for good
Felix Hernandez -tore up minors, debuted and was great at 19
These are the guys you want to compare Lucas to and Giolito's minor league career is definitively behind these guys. You'd probably even put his minor league climb right now behind those of Carlos Martinez and Yovani Gallardo who both had very good long stints in AA ball at age 20. Who's then left of the non-college guys? Jose Quintana was still stuck in rookie ball at age 20. Chris Archer was good in A-ball and would basically have Giolito's age 20 season at age 21. Carlos Carrasco wat 20 was in AA adapting to the league.
If you look objectively at this Lucas Giolito probably fits more into the Martinez/Gallardo model than the Greinke/Kershaw/Bumgarner/King Felix model.
"But Harper", you say "the reason Giolito hasn't moved up fast is because he was injured to start. He could be dominating like those guys but the team is taking him slow!" You just know how to lead into my reasons don't you?
Reason #3 : The Nats themselves believe Giolito doesn't have that much major league time on that arm.
The Nats have been quoted as saying they believe your "second elbow" the repaired one after Tommy John surgery has a lifespan of 8 good years. This is why it was relatively easy for them to say goodbye to Jordan Zimmerman and will likely do the same for Stephen Strasburg after this year. Thing is Lucas Giolito had one of those Tommy John surgeries too, a long time ago, like in Obama's first term. Assuming the Nats are correct, Lucas has already put 3 of those seasons on his arm without giving the Nats any major league value and it's possible that 2016 will mark a fourth.
It's more likely that Lucas will give the Nats something this year but not a full year, meaning that 2017 or "Year 5 of 8 on elbow #2" will be the first full season Giolito will give the Nats. If he's immediately great the Nats' themselves would expect four seasons from him. Throw in a struggle year, maybe an injury and the possibility of 2 years seems just as likely. While it could be a awesome two years, it's still just two years, and that's hardly something to get excited about as a Nats fan.
There you go. Did I make you come back down from that cloud? There's always a way to be pessimistic if you try. Take all these together and you could see a Giolito that doesn't make an impact until 2019, is only good not great, and is promptly injured by 2021. However, that's a bit of a stretch though.
A fairer pessimism is that Giolito, while a great prospect, is just under that level of the true aces in the majors. That means he may very well be very good to great in the majors but the road there may be a bit longer. He may struggle a bit in the upper minors or the majors first. It shouldn't be much, he's kind of behind them by one year now so maybe one more year. That wouldn't be too much of an issue except for Giolito is on a clock. A timer counting down from an unknown number. The longer he takes to get to the majors and get great in the majors, the less time the Nats have with this #1 type arm on their staff. If he takes a year longer than expected or the elbow goes a year earlier than expected then that's a big issue.
He's got the stuff. The question is how will the timing work out for the Nats.