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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Lucas Giolito

The right-hander was enjoying a bounceback campaign before a waiver-wire bonanza.

Lucas Giolito walks off the field for the Guardians.
Lucas Giolito walks off the field for the Guardians.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

As the Yankees deliberate how to resuscitate their anemic starting staff, a frontline addition could be in the cards, or a series of prove-it deals that serve as a bridge for a group of high-minors prospects. But why not something in between?

FanGraphs’ crowd-sourcing methods project Lucas Giolito for a deal from two to three years for $30 to 40 million, while Ben Clemens is the high-man, predicting a four-year, $60 million deal. I might not go as high as Clemens’ figure, but Giolito is clearly a cut above pitchers seeking prove-it contracts.

The right-hander had a tough full-season debut in 2018, but after a velocity bump thanks to a shortening of his arm action, he pitched like an ace from 2019-2021. In that span, he was a horse for the White Sox, with his 72 starts tied for 16th most and his 427.2 innings 12th most outright. His 3.47 ERA and 3.54 FIP also ranked 24th and 22nd, respectively, among the 125 pitchers with 200 innings during that time.

But in 2022, his velocity took a step back to his pre-2019 levels, and his production cratered accordingly. He still managed 30 starts and 161.2 innings, but his ERA ballooned to 4.90. His peripherals were better, mostly at or around 4.00, but most were still worse than anything he had posted since 2018.

Fastball velocity would be an issue for any pitcher, but it can be a particularly thorny one for a changeup-heavy hurler who relies on speed differential. Giolito’s best secondary pitch has always been the cambio, but when his fastball velocity dipped, his changeup’s speed didn’t drop quite as much. According to Statcast, from 2021-22, he lost 1.2 mph on his heater but just 0.5 on his changeup, lessening the two pitches’ separation. However, the good news for any team acquiring Giolito is that from 2022-23, his heater gained half a tick while his changeup lost another 0.1.

So what’s the deal with his velocity? After adding some muscle prior to 2022, Giolito slimmed back down to a more natural weight prior to ‘23. This led to more comfort on the mound, and a more fluid delivery. He actually started out the season with a fastball velocity more or less in the same place it had been a year ago, but the difference was that he was able to maintain that heat throughout the season, pitching the entire campaign with a clean bill of health and starting a career-high 33 games:

Yet, his performance clearly worsened as the season wore on. Through his first 21 starts, all with the White Sox, Giolito pitched to a 3.79 ERA and 4.43 FIP, striking out 25.8 percent of hitters and walking just 8.3 percent, both improvements over 2022. But almost as soon as he was traded, the wheels came off. From that point on, Giolito limped to a 6.96 ERA and 6.87 FIP for the Angels and Guardians, including allowing a nine-spot for each team.

Per pitching model Stuff+, through his time with the ChiSox in 2023, Giolito’s pitch shapes and velocities graded out as six percent worse than the league average. Though still below average, this represented a three percentage point improvement over his 2022 results. With his above-average command, he graded out above average per the more general Pitching+ model. After the initial trade, his new clubs seemed to optimize his raw tools even more, bumping his Stuff+ figure up to just four percent worse than league average.

But Giolito struggled to command his retooled arsenal, and his walk rate soared to 10.8 percent while his strikeout rate dropped slightly. It’s tough to make adjustments in-season when you’re a member of one club, let alone three. My guess is that Giolito received a lot of conflicting information that his new teams, each on the periphery of the playoff picture, wanted him to apply immediately without regard for his performance given his impending free agency.

With the opportunity for a new, at least medium-term home, Giolito will have plenty of time to get acquainted with his next club’s vision for his repertoire. Still, they’ll be working with slightly diminished tools however you slice it; while Giolito was able to maintain his velocity throughout 2023, he didn’t reach the heights that he had in his dominant three-year stretch. And though they tried to do it on the fly, three different teams didn’t find a silver bullet last year that brought Giolito’s dominance back out.

Instead, a more realistic approach might be seeking to return the right-hander to his early 2023 form; that is, a durable mid-rotation option who still hasn’t cracked 30 years of age. And that’s a valuable piece on any team, let alone one like the Yankees that was sorely lacking such options this past year.