Chicago White Sox: Lucas Giolito’s changeup is a game changer

(Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images) /

Sunday was the type of performance Chicago White Sox fans have come to expect from Lucas Giolito. Pure dominance. Giolito looked like an ace, throwing seven innings of one-run ball and allowing only three hits and three walks.

Lucas Giolito was amazing for the Chicago White Sox on Sunday afternoon.

His stone-cold stare throughout the day let hitters know he was dialed in and it was going to be a long game. He mowed down Orioles hitters all afternoon peppering them with a barrage of changeups, recording a season-high 12 strikeouts in the process. Giolito’s only blemish of the day came in the third when DJ Steward hit a solo home.

The 6’6″ right-hander opened the afternoon by striking out Cedric Mullens on a nasty changeup that broke about 19 inches. This would be a preview for the rest of the afternoon. Freddy Galvis was the next victim, freezing as an 82 mph changeup painted the corner of the strike zone.

Lucas Giolito commanded the strike zone all afternoon. He threw 80 of his 108 pitches for strikes. His fastball command was superb and allowed him to get ahead in the count. But, as it has been most of the season, the changeup was the star of the show. Of Giolito’s 12 strikeouts, eight were via the changeup.

Giolito said after the game that the Orioles were taking a “fastball approach” from the jump. This played right into his hand because it allowed his changeup to bait them into swings and misses. Giolito set a season-high by generating 28 swinging strikes and a whiff rate of 51 percent. Changeups were responsible for 16 of those whiffs.

The changeup would not be effective without his mid-90s elevated fastball. He sets up the changeup by humming in a fastball in the upper part of the strike zone then throwing a changeup from the same arm slot that falls off the table with low 80s velocity. It is virtually impossible to hit.

Giolito’s changeup is suddenly emerging as one of the most effective weapons in baseball. What Giolito is able to do with it better than anybody in baseball is elevate it. Usually, an offspeed pitch high in the strike zone spells disaster. Not for Giolito. When he gets ahead in the count he can use it to look like an elevated fastball.

Take his strikeout of Pedro Severino in the third inning. Giolito set it up with a 92 mph fastball up in the zone that was fouled off. After missing with a slider, he threw an 80 mph elevated changeup that baffled and Severino fanned at it.

"“Hitters like hitting fastballs,” Giolito said after the game. “And it’s not like I’m gonna go out there and throw 20 percent fastballs in a start; I’m still gonna use it, and throw a lot of them."

Unlocking the changeup is part of the reason Giolito has transformed from the worst pitcher in baseball into one of the game’s best. In 2018, Giolito had two starts against the Orioles and was slapped with a 13.50 ERA. In those two starts, he threw only 14 changeups.

Sunday afternoon showed just how far he has come. In 2018, Giolito’s changeup usage rate was a mere 15.7 percent. Entering Sunday he was sitting on the highest changeup usage rate in baseball at 36.6 percent.

Giolito relied heavily on his changeup in the biggest moments of Sunday’s game. The game was deadlocked in a 1-1 tie entering the sixth inning. After retiring the first hitter, Giolito allowed a bunt single and followed that up with a pair of walks to load the bases.

In the midst of a jam, Giolito made it clear which pitch he is most comfortable with. Giolito bore down and struck out Anthony Santander on three straight changeups. He then threw three more to Maikel Franco and got him to pop out. An elated Giolito celebrated as he stormed off the mound. Six changeups in seven pitches to work out of trouble.

After the game, Gioliot credited his catcher for helping him in that situation.

"“That’s on Zack, too,” Giolito said. “He called all those pitches. I don’t think I shook at all in that situation. He recognized that the changeup was working there, the fastball was a little iffy, and we used the changeup to get out of it.”"

Giolito finished his day by getting Pedro Severino to pop out to Jose Abreu in foul territory. As he walked slowly to the dugout he received a rousing standing ovation from the 21,000 Guaranteed Rate faithful in attendance for a job well done. Not only did Giolito keep the Orioles at bay but he also went deep into the game and was able to preserve the bullpen ahead of a doubleheader the next day.

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The offense rewarded his efforts by taking a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh. The bullpen slammed the door and Gioliot was credited with the win. The victory improved his record to 5-4 on the season and lowered his ERA to 3.73.

"“He’s the first and biggest hero.” manager Tony La Russa said after the game. “Not only did we get the win but [Giolito] got the win. Once in a while, there is justice.”"