If we learned two things on Sunday night as the world crowded around televisions to watch the “Game of Thrones” finale, it was this: endings are difficult and expectations only increase the magnitude. The latter point is key. If no one’s investing in the success of failure of a certain thing, no one’s really around to form an opinion. It’s the tree falling in the woods idiom, but in pop culture form. Anyway, I make this statement to suggest that beginnings with expectations are just as hard to get right. Simply ask any top MLB prospect who hasn’t gone deep in his first at-bat or struck out the side in his first inning of work. People are impossible to please, even in a game as defeatist as baseball.
Still, a slow start isn’t a death sentence. There’s always another week, month, or year of contests to take part in. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a pair of highly regarded talents – current and former – that have begun to get hot in the month of May. Guys that haven’t needed a petition to get things headed in a positive direction…
JUNIOR’S JUMPSTART: .571 ISO ACROSS PAST SEVEN DAYSDespite Toronto’s standing as North America’s fourth-largest sports market, it’d be a bit of a reach to suggest that all Vladimir Guerrero Jr. needed to do was get away from the pressure of playing his highly-anticipated home games at a generally half-empty Rogers Centre. Yet, history will show that Guerrero’s first power surge came nearly three weeks into his major league career, corresponding with a Blue Jays road trip in San Francisco and Chicago. Vladito took 24 plate appearances within this span of time, collecting nine hits, four home runs, a .571 ISO and a 238 wRC+. It was everything fans and scouts had been waiting for from baseball’s consensus No. 1 prospect and, to celebrate, Guerrero was named American League Player of the Week on Monday afternoon. The improvements haven’t all been this obvious, however. Guerrero had been making incremental gains in his approach leading up to his two-home run breakout at Oracle Park last Tuesday. For instance, while Guerrero had gone down on strikes in 26.8% of his first 41 PAs, he’s struck out only twice in his last 36. He’s also created a batted ball event of at least 100mph in every game he’s appeared dating back to May 7. The kid’s clearly a quick study.
That’s not to suggest Guerrero’s close to a finished product, though. If anything has become more apparent with the 20-year-old’s recent accomplishments, its that he’s still restricting himself with a flawed batted ball profile. This isn’t a new trend, either; it was simply never an issue when Guerrero was dominating at every stop of the minors. The third baseman currently sports a 50.9% ground ball rate, a number in line with Guerrero’s 1.96 GB/FB ratio from 128 plate appearances in Triple-A last season. Among qualified players in 2019, just three have managed to maintain a ground ball rate above 50% while possessing an isolated power of above .200: Ryan Braun, Yandy Diaz and David Peralta.
These aren’t two things that generally correlate well. Even taking a quick peak at Guerrero’s company at the top of the fly ball and line drive exit velocity leaderboard shows a glaring discrepancy. With an average of 97.8mph on these particular BBEs, Guerrero has the 13th highest mark in a pool of 298 players with at least 50 batted ball events to their name so far this season. Yet, Guerrero and the aforementioned Diaz are the lone men sitting inside the top 25 of that category with a launch angle below six degrees. It’s why Guerrero’s turned a lowly 23.1% of the balls he’s put into play at over 95mph into barrels. Considering his xwOBA on line drives and fly balls is .690 and his xwOBA on grounders is .208; altering this approach is the next step in Guerrero ascending to All-Star status.
LATE-BLOOMING LUCAS: 28.6% STRIKEOUT RATELet’s travel back in time to the not-so-distant past of 2014. Lucas Giolito had just been named Most Valuable Player and Top Minor League Prospect in the South Atlantic League. He’d also recently appeared in the MLB All-Star Futures Game. Sure, he’d had to endure Tommy John surgery almost immediately after being drafted by the Nationals 16th overall in 2012; but life was probably pretty good for the franchise’s next great ace. Until everything fell apart, that is. Giolito made his big league debut in 2016, yet, in that cup of coffee, the right-hander would walk more batters (12) than he’s retire on strikes (11). Then he was traded to the White Sox, and suddenly the fastball velocity that had once exceeded 100mph abandoned him. The pitcher who had so routinely struck out over an opponent per inning throughout the minors could not seem to manage an even slightly above-average rate at the major league level. At 24 years old, exiting his first full MLB campaign with a bloated 6.13 ERA, many were ready to label Giolito a bust. Well, hopefully you counted yourself among those not quite prepared to lose complete faith.
Giolito’s pitched incredibly well over his first eight starts of 2019, pitching to a 3.00 FIP in his first 43.0 innings of the season. The biggest reason for this massive shift in results? Strikeouts. Giolito’s underwhelming 16.1% strikeout rate from 2018 has almost doubled in this current campaign, with the RHP touting a flattering 28.6% figure. Giolito has been somewhat unique in the way he’s gone about making this jump, too. Though the obvious place to point is a swinging strike rate that climbed from 8.3% to 11.7%; Giolito has been able to garner more swings and misses in the strike zone rather than inducing a higher chase rate. In fact, while Giolito’s outside the zone swing rate is nearly identical to the mark he put up last season, his zone rate has spiked at 48.7% – the second-highest rate among pitchers with 40-plus innings thrown in the American League.
The ability to pitch primarily in the strike zone, yet still register a high swinging strike rate is rare. We’re dealing with a small sample size when it comes specifically to Giolito, but here’s the list of the other pitchers this year who have posted a swinging strike rate above 11.0% with a zone rate above 46.0%: Chris Paddack, Chris Sale, Tyler Glasnow, German Marquez, Jon Gray, Michael Pineda and Max Scherzer. Even if it’s not definitive proof of what’s to come, it’s undeniable that Giolito is at least showing elite traits. That occurrence – along with the return of his fastball velocity and more reliance on his change-up – give me hope that Giolito has indeed finally made the leap to fantasy relevance.
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I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is theglt13) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.