Nationals Baseball: God Killer

Thursday, February 11, 2016

God Killer

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 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 :


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.


Chris said...

So do you think the Nat's thinking that a pitcher has 8 good years on the second elbow is reasonable? Obviously the Tigers don't subscribe to that theory seeing as how they just gave JZimm a 5 year deal.

Harper said...

Reasonable? Yeah I'd say reasonable. But it's also almost pointless. You'd expect something else to happen in 8 years - other injuries, drop off in performance, - that would render whether they get to 8 years moot. If you do get to FA with these TJ guys unless you are right at year 7 or 8 you have to figure the chances of this guy giving you 2-3 healthy years to start a deal is close to the same as any other signee and anything after 2-3 years down the road becomes real fuzzy. In other words it really shouldn't be a big deal in signings. It's great that they think "OK well if Max goes down and needs TJ we'll get his next elbow time" but the reality is they'd lose 2 seasons likely. Great - you get a 35 year old on his 2nd elbow - for a couple years? That's the selling point you are trying to give us? In this sense I think 8 years is a real position but why it's been noted to media is as more of an excuse than a reason. Something to quickly explain away why they didn't go in on ZNN and won't for Strasburg.

Shawn said...

Great piece, and a good reminder that sometimes the best use for prospects is as a trade chip. Speaking of which, odds that maybe the Nats are just holding onto Giolito as a trade chip?

SM said...

I'm curious as to how the Nationals arrived at the 8-good-years lifespan of a "second elbow."

I'm sure it isn't mere conjecture, but a quick survey of Tommy John surgeries--and the players' subsequent careers--suggests that "8 good years" veers toward the optimistic end of their calculations.

With certain exceptions--Matt Thornton, say, or A.J. Burnett--relatively few Tommy John patients extend their careers by 8 years. (Tommy John himself may have had the longest post-surgery career.)

True, a number of variables enter the calculations--age; actual talent level (was he good enough to make the big leagues even without the surgery); improvement in surgical and rehabilitation techniques, etc. These are in addition to those you've already noted (other injuries, performance decline).

As much as it pains fans to see homegrown favourites drift away through free agency, perhaps the front office is actually making the correct decision.

Jay said...

A couple of things. One, I think this shows they should bring Giolito up this year at some point. I agree with Harper that his theoretical elbow time is ticking. Sink or swim it's time to find out this year or at latest next year.

Two, I agree that it is a bit of an excuse on the TJ elbow. The argument doesn't really hold water. If the Nats are so great on helping pitchers recover from TJ and you have Giolito and Fedde now on their second elbow, but we won't sign them long term bc - 8 years??? What is the point of getting Giolito and Fedde?? They're going to waste all the time on their second elbow in the minors.

Third and final point. Is anyone else really irritated watching the Orioles spend money like crazy. Word is they're getting Gallardo and Fowler, plus the 3 other guys they brought back for big money. Yet another reason to hate Angelos. I'm hoping the Nats are released from their MASN contract after all of this nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Harper, I think this analysis is a useful counterpoint to all the demi-god stuff. The only minor quibble I have is your interpretation of his AA performance. He has less than 50 AA innings. As you no doubt know, he spent most of last year in High A before he moved to AA. Kershaw's first 25 IP in AA (at the end of his age 19 year) were 3.65 ERA/5.17 WHIP. Also there's reason to like Giolito's 50 innings at AA better than Bumgarner's 100 IP at AA - Giolito has a much better K rate and a better FIP.

It's true that it would be better if Giolito dominated AA the way he dominated A+ ball during the first part of 2015, but it's still only 50 IP.

I think we'll know a lot more after he gets ~50 more innings in the high minors to start this year.

Anonymous said...

Pls clarify. U said that Giolito had "one of those surgeries back in Obamas first term. I thought he had in 2012 after he was drafted. Do u mean he has had two?

SM said...

Surgery in August of 2012, three months before the 2012 election. Technically in Obama's first term, no?

Harper said...

Shawn - 0%. He's an ace talent at low cost. The only trade q will be if they really believe in the 8 years thing - do they deal him when he closes in on that, while he's still cheap and good?

SM - 8 years might be a little high but like you said - lost of stuff to figure - bet it makes sense to them for age of Stras/ZNN/Gio and controlled usage.

Jay - 1) I would look to move him up early unless he's struggling. 2) Well maybe you think those guys can be 1-2 years in minors guys. Fedde certainly coming from college. 3) let's see where they end up first before we get all mad.

Anon @ 10:22 - I don't disagree. Really Giolito had a bad 25 then a great 25 too which bodes well for this year. The way I feel is if he struggles to start 2016 then the idea that he's not a Kershaw, etc. type holds water. If he blows through it, and has no issues in AAA or is moved up to MLB and doesn't completely fail then it doesn't. Just a year behind others by injury/team choice. At that point EVERYONE would have to be wrong about him.

SM - I wouldn't even use technically. That makes it sound like a trick. Terms run 4 years starting in year AFTER election. So first term is most quickly defined as 2009-2012. (we can get into technically if you want to talk about those 3 weeks in January

Zimmerman11 said...

TL;DR - Return of the Soulless Automaton (seriously, Harper, do you feel any pangs of guilt when you click the checkbox for "I am not a robot"???) - There is no such thing as a pitching prospect.

In other news, TRUCK DAY! Winter finally showed up in the Southern Tier of NY, and this was just the news I needed to not fall into seasonal depression :)

SM said...

Indeed, not "technically" at all.

I'm Canadian, and our Parliamentary system is rife with technicalities and "tricks." (We now have a Senator before the courts--charged with fraud, breach of trust and bribery--whose original appointment to the Senate was based on a technical residency requirement.)

But at least we're all polite--technically.

Froggy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Froggy said...

Whoa!...for a second I thought the title was Dog Killer!

... but being a soulless automaton and all.

John C. said...

I give you a pass on the pessimism on this one, Harper, since the goal when you set out was to be a wet blanket. Or, if you prefer, "to bring a fan soaring on expectations, down to Earth." :)

I don't disagree that there's no guarantees, and that there are things to consider before one anoints Giolito as Kershaw II. That said, there are also elements on the positive side for Giolito. It's not just the stats, it's the stuff. Law points out that Giolito grades out with four major league quality pitches, two of which (FB and curve) are graded at 80 and (I think) 70. The comeback from injury not only plays up in terms of the amount of work he's been able to get in (36 IP in 2013; 98 in 2014; 117 in 2015), but in what he's thrown. It has been reported that the Nationals limited his use of the curve ball in his eight AA starts, so he could work on developing his changeup. This could also explain the (very slight) slip in his K% and BB%.

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.

I've seen this reported elsewhere, but I've never actually seen anyone from the Nationals state that this is their belief. Did I miss something? More importantly, even if one accepts the "8 good years" theory, is that including the limited workload? As noted above, Giolito only pitched 36 (OK, 36.2) innings in 2013. Not much of a "year."

Bjd1207 said...

Spectacular piece, and exactly what I needed. I think the most striking point for me was putting Giolito in a class with Martinez/Gallardo instead of Greinke/Fernandez/etc. It's easy to forget that even the guys who are not MLB aces were most likely minor league aces nonetheless.

And I would feel remiss if I didn't take a second to thank you not only for this post, but for providing quite literally the best analysis on my favorite team in all of sports for the past 4+ years I've been reading. I plug you every chance I get and hope that you continue doing this for as long as you're willing.

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