Having watched Gerrit Cole breeze through yet another postseason start in Sunday’s Game 5 of the World Series, I wanted to refresh my memory on how dominant he had been in the regular season. My go-to destination for such things is the Plate Discipline leaderboard right here on FanGraphs. This leaderboard tells me a large portion of what I need to know about how pitchers have performed — how well they’re missing bats by swinging strikes (SwStr%) or avoiding swings in the strike zone (Z-Swing%) and how they are limiting walks by throwing first-pitch strikes (F-Strike%) or getting out-of-zone chases (O-Swing%).
I sorted by SwStr%, and Cole was at the top. Unlike many pitchers who get a lot of swings and misses, he had a slightly lower-than-average Z-Swing%, and he was comfortably above-average at throwing first-pitch strikes and getting chases. He had a lot in common with the pitchers who ranked just behind him, but one of the names near the top of the leaderboard caught me off guard. It surprised me enough that I felt the need to tweet it out.
Gerrit Cole is likely cementing his position as the first pitcher taken in 2020 fantasy drafts, and the hype is well-deserved. But someone with far less acclaim had a batted ball profile that wasn't that much worse than Cole's. pic.twitter.com/l41U1EgsCN
— Al Melchior (@almelchiorBB) October 28, 2019
Lucas Giolito had the sixth-highest SwStr% this season, and he was less than a percentage point behind Jacob deGrom and Luis Castillo. His F-Strike% and O-Swing% were only a little above average, but Giolito had the best control in the top six (47.2 percent Zone%), and only Cole had a lower Z-Contact% rate. In other words, he pitched enough in the strike zone to maintain a decent walk rate (8.1 percent), but he was deceptive enough as to not get hammered.
If a pitcher misses bats at a high rate and doesn’t have serious issues with walks, that nearly ensures real-world and fantasy success. By these measures alone, Giolito would seem to have a fair shot at being a top-10 starting pitcher next season, yet the consensus is betting against that. Several sites have their early 2020 rankings out and I have yet to see one that places Giolito in the top 10. CBS’ Scott White comes closest by ranking him 13th among starters. The Athletic’s Derek Van Riper ranks Giolito 16th, ESPN’s Tristan Cockcroft has him 19th and our very own Paul Sporer lists him 24th. In the recently-run #2EarlyMocks, Giolito’s 53.0 ADP placed him 16th among starting pitchers.
Looking at this from another angle, those rankings make sense. Giolito was the 13th-ranked starter in terms of 5×5 Roto value in 2019. Chris Sale could re-establish himself as a top-10 starter, while Blake Snell and Luis Severino could return at full health and be ready to re-join the elite tier. Chris Paddack will get more innings. Yu Darvish could pitch like he did in the second half for all of 2020. Each of these starters could leapfrog Giolito, placing him in the lower teens of the rankings. Of the pitchers who ranked ahead of him, only Hyun-Jin Ryu looks especially primed for a precipitous fall, and that is mostly because the 182.2 innings he logged this year were such an aberration.
In Paul’s top 30 rankings, he included a comment that probably speaks for all fantasy owners who are squeamish about Giolito, even as a lower-teens picks. Paul wrote, “Everything in breakout is backed up, but will it hold for ’20?”. Giolito not only supported his breakout with improved skill indicators, but with sizable leaps in average velocity (from 92.8 mph in 2018 to 94.6 mph in 2019) and spin rate (2099 to 2333 rpm) on his four-seam fastball. Giolito ditched his sinker, which further helped to improve his SwStr% and his popup rate, and he continued to throw his changeup at a higher rate, as he had also done in the second half of 2018. Of 30 pitchers who threw at least 500 changeups this season, Giolito ranked fifth with a 21.9 percent SwStr% and first with a 16.4 percent called strike rate.
While Giolito showed some improvements in the second half of 2018, we had not seen anything like this season’s version prior to this year, at least not at the major league level. Given the choice between someone who has performed at this level for one season versus someone who has even just done it twice — like Jack Flaherty — it’s clearly better to go with the latter pitcher.
Another potential warning sign for Giolito is the barrage of home runs he allowed in the second half of 2019. After having allowed only nine home run in 100 innings in the first half, he coughed up 15 of them over 76.2 innings after the break. If there is a reason to think Giolito won’t be able to maintain his 2019 numbers, this is the most obvious one. His average exit velocity on flies and liners (92.8 mph) was above the median (min. 300 batted balls), and Guaranteed Rate Field is not likely to help him to keep the ball in the park.
Owners may downgrade Giolito for wins, as the White Sox ranked 24th in runs scored this season. However, he did win 14 games despite receiving 4.0 runs of support per 27 outs for innings that he pitched. With Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal set to join the team at some point in 2020 and Eloy Jiménez having made strides in the second half of 2019, the White Sox offense could be better, but Giolito has already shown he is effective enough to win games with a lack of run support.
If we’re going to discount Giolito for not having performed at his 2019 levels previously, we should penalize Shane Bieber similarly, yet the consensus is that he will rank sixth or seventh next season after having ranked eighth this season. Walker Buehler, like Bieber, is no stranger to hard contact, and he has yet to demonstrate that he can post a well-above-average SwStr%. Nonetheless, he is a consensus top-10 starter with several rankers placing him in the top five. Will Clayton Kershaw and Charlie Morton take a step back in their strikeout and whiff rates after improving in 2019? If so, Giolito may surpass them.
While few, if any, of the pitchers ranked ahead of Giolito look like sure-fire candidates to fall short of expectations, several have risks that are at least as acute as Giolito’s. If I am looking at Buehler or Bieber, for example, as an option for my staff ace in the second or third round, I would just as soon wait an extra round or two, knowing that Giolito is likely to still be there. He finished this season among the elites in several critical plate discipline metrics, and that, in combination with the widespread risk that exists even among many of the highest-ranked pitchers, should qualify Giolito for some higher rankings going forward. If we as a fantasy community head into our 2020 drafts thinking of Giolito as a top 20 or 25 pitcher, rather than as a top 10 or 15 pitcher, I’ll probably have him in a lot of leagues.
Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference, Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.