How bad was White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito in 2018? So bad, he had the highest WHIP (1.48) in baseball. So bad, he leaked walks (90 of them) and hemorrhaged earned runs (118, in 32 starts) like a stuck balloon; both figures ranked at the very top — make that the very bottom — of the American League.
Giolito was so bad, the only thing higher than his begging-for-a-demotion numbers was his anxiety on the mound. So bad, the only thing lower than his in-game confidence was the Sox’ hope of winning a game each fifth day when it was his turn to pitch.
So bad, the nickname “Big Foot” that adorned the back of the 6-6, 245-pound right-hander’s jersey on MLB Players Weekend called to mind a mythical creature — the first-round draft pick, selected by the Nationals in 2012, who was supposed to become a star. Perhaps “Train Wreck” would’ve been better. Or simply “Bust.”
And so bad, his massive struggles brought out all the creeps.
These aren’t easy words to write: “Kill yourself.” But they appeared in the comments on Giolito’s social-media accounts more than once. Then-girlfriend Ariana Dubelko — the Giolitos married last Dec. 22 — did her best to delete them before a pitcher on the brink saw them.
Imagine those creeps. Imagine the emptiness inside them.
“At one point, it seemed like the whole world was just completely against him and awful,” she said. “People say pretty nasty things when they think nobody will know where it came from. After a bad outing, after a bad day, they don’t need to go home and see people telling them to kill themselves because they didn’t throw a ball well. In the grand scheme, aren’t there bigger concerns?”
At least Giolito had his high school sweetheart to lean on.
“She always has my back,” he said. “I would come home from games depressed sometimes, and she was always a rock. Very even-keeled, always extremely supportive. She believed in me at times when I wasn’t believing in myself.”
The believing-in-himself thing, though, was a problem. An enormous one, if we’re being honest. But here’s the funny thing that happened in the Longest, Worst, Best Year Ever for Lucas Giolito: He solved it. With a lot of help, he slayed it.
The wedding in Los Angeles ruled, too.
It’s almost unthinkable what Giolito has pulled off during his 25th year on Earth. The day he turned 24, a 6.59 ERA stared back at him in the mirror. Less than a year later, he’s 10-2 with a 2.87 ERA, a brilliant strikeouts-to-walks ratio, a WHIP gone tantalizingly low, newfound confidence, jettisoned anxiety and — big “and” — a date with the July 9 All-Star Game in Cleveland.
The rosters will be revealed Sunday. The only thing Giolito, who will become the Sox’ first All-Star pitcher since Chris Sale and Jose Quintana in 2016, is wondering about is when he’ll get the ball.
“It’s been a crazy year,” he said. “It was bad for a while, but it’s been fun. It’s been crazy.”
Five days after the All-Star Game, he’ll finally turn 25.
Giolito has a way of disappearing down the rabbit hole. If he likes a movie, he’ll spend two hours after it’s over reading about where it was made, how it was shot, how the story was developed, etc. If he likes a book or a video game, his curiosity about the creative process will consume him in much the same way.
He was, in this regard, a perfect candidate for offseason neurofeedback training. He didn’t just buy into what a Los Angeles-based company called BrainKanix might be able to do for him by studying and retraining his brain. He became fascinated by it and “marathoned” a program designed to lower anxiety and the effects of stress, decrease self-doubt and fear, and improve a person’s ability to perform under pressure.
It was heady stuff. Giolito is convinced it did as much for him as, if not more than, the mechanical adjustments he made on the mound that have been written about extensively.
“Go back to right before spring training, and I was sitting there every day visualizing myself being successful out on the mound,” he said. “I was overcoming the bases-loaded, one-out situation. I was overcoming any of the situations that I struggled with last year. I was just doing it over and over again in my brain, and I convinced myself: ‘I’ve got this.’ ”
Giolito was turned on to BrainKanix by one of his best friends, Braves starting pitcher Max Fried, with whom he played high school ball in Santa Monica, California. Fried — who won at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, his second victory in two starts against the Cubs this season — had long struggled on the mound with what he calls “anxiety issues,” which for him meant difficulty controlling his emotions and, often, the feeling that his heart was racing out of control. Fried’s older brother introduced him to an acquaintance named Andrew Plotkin, a cofounder of the company.
Amazingly, Giolito, Fried and Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty all pitched in the same star-studded rotation at Harvard-Westlake School. Their friendship has only continued to blossom since. They record and watch one another’s starts and break down one another’s performances via FaceTime. Their group text chain always is active.
“Lucas was expressing this feeling of anxiety and how it was kind of overtaking him, was kind of consuming him last season,” Fried said. “I said, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve been doing. It’s helped me out. Doesn’t hurt to try it.’ ”
Giolito not only tried it, but he did 20 sessions in 10 days over two weeks — a small fraction of the time the program typically takes — geeking out over the process and the feedback. And the more he understood, the more confident he became.
First-inning trouble? Shaky fastball command? A bases-loaded jam? All controllable, all fixable in the moment.
“I’ve visualized coming through in those situations with ease and committed that to my subconscious,” he said.
He has paid that forward, too. Plotkin’s latest student from the Sox’ organization: top pitching prospect Dylan Cease. Sox fans who’ve been impatient for Cease’s arrival in Chicago must understand that his experience in the minor leagues hasn’t been without difficulty. All players — especially pitchers — face occasional mental barriers. Cease is working on them.
How good has Giolito been in 2019? So good, he was tied for the AL lead in victories with two starts to go — one of them against the Cubs — before the All-Star break. So good, he ranked in the top 10 in ERA and WHIP (1.07) and had walked a mere 33 batters and struck out 111.
So good, the question isn’t if he’ll get the All-Star call; it’s how many times in his career such a call will come. So good, the only thing brighter than his future is his demeanor.
He is the Sox’ Big Foot, leaving one hell of an imprint on a turnaround season filled with promise that the team’s rebuild will be a success.
“Last year, all the walks, all the bad innings, all the homers, all the going from bad to worse — that was killing me,” he said. “It was embarrassing.
“But now I don’t care if I give up a home run. I don’t care if I walk three guys in a row. It doesn’t matter because I have control over the next pitch. I have the ball in my hand. It’s time to execute.”
He has walked the walk — think big feet, not bases on balls — at several key junctures this season. Getting roughed up in his second start, against the Mariners, could’ve derailed his confidence; instead, his next nine decisions were all victories. In one of those outings, the rival Royals rocked him with a three-run first inning; all Giolito did after that was squeeze the life out of them with seven consecutive scoreless frames.
And after the Cubs hit him hard on June 19 at Wrigley, handing him his first loss in 2½ months, Giolito came back with a much better performance in a no-decision at Fenway against the Red Sox.
“A home run? A bad inning? Even a bad game? Hey, it’s baseball,” he said. “OK, so I just say: ‘Next?’ It’s over. Let’s go out there and see how many zeros I can put up. I know our offense is going to score runs, so I just need to keep going out there, keep the innings short, let the hitters do their work — and we’re going to come out on top.
“That’s how it works. That’s how you win.”
At 24, Giolito was a mess. Still 24, Giolito is a monster. What a pitcher. What a turnaround. What a year.