2021 Arbitration Preview: Lucas Giolito – Chicago White Sox

With the 2020 Major League Baseball season on hiatus due to the Coronavirus, one can’t help but wonder of a season that could have been. Do the Nationals, after losing slugger Anthony Rendon to the Angels, have what it takes to repeat as World Series champs? Can Pete Alonso be this season’s home run champion again? Will Trout win another MVP?

Hopefully we will know sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I took the liberty of looking at players who will become first-time arbitration eligible following the 2020 season, focusing on Lucas Giolito of the Chicago White Sox.

Rather than conduct an analysis based off of career numbers (excluding the vacant 2020 season), I utilized The BAT Projection System by Derek Carty, which is part of FanGraphs, to fill in the gap for 2020 season statistics.

The BAT is a standard projection system that predicts outcomes in accordance with basic factors such as hitter and pitcher, park quality, umpires, weather factors, and more.

Before diving into the details, I wanted to set forth some assumptions and general rules I made in analyzing Giolito and the relevant comparisons:

  • The BAT Projection System provides projections assuming that a player plays a full season. It goes without saying that injuries will, in some cases, greatly impact any findings.
  • This case is argued from the perspective of the White Sox, not the player’s representation.
  • This analysis assumes that each player in the 2021 First-Time Arbitration-Eligible class will meet their predictions exactly as written over the course of a 162-game season (who knows if that will be true?).
  • This analysis assumes that Giolito does not make the All-Star team in 2020.

Career Overview

Although he was an All-Star in 2019, Giolito has been largely inconsistent in a White Sox uniform. Last year seemed like an aberration, as 2020 brought an increase in ERA, earned runs, hits, and a decrease in strikeouts.

Giolito was drafted in the first round, 16th overall, by the Nationals in 2012. The right-hander made his debut for Washington on June 28, 2016, in which he pitched only four innings, striking out one, while allowing zero earned runs and just one hit.

However, Giolito’s stint in Washington was short, as he pitched only 21.1 innings for the Nationals before being sent to the White Sox that same offseason for Adam Eaton.

Since arriving on the South Side of Chicago, Giolito’s career has been marred by ups and downs.

He pitched only 45.1 innings in 2017, having been called up from Triple-A Charlotte in August of that season. In a short time, Giolito pitched to a 2.38 ERA and recorded 34 strikeouts. Giolito’s ERA was ranked first among 42 qualified rookies in 2017, however his 35.1 IP was among the lowest of that group.

Giolito began 2018 on the White Sox Opening Day roster and did not meet the team’s expectations as a No. 2 starter, going just 10-13. His 173.1 IP ranked only 41st among qualified pitchers in all of baseball, and his 6.31 ERA was dead last. Giolito also led the AL in earned runs (118) and walks (90).

Despite his only All-Star appearance in 2019, Giolito spent two different stints on the Injured List with a hamstring strain and lower back strain in April and September, respectively. Additionally, two other White Sox starters, Reynaldo Lopez and Ivan Nova, recorded more IP than Giolito. His 3.41 ERA was only 19th-best in baseball and fifth-best in the AL, however, Giolito had almost 36 less IP than the next-best AL pitcher by ERA, Shane Bieber. Finally, although Giolito had three complete games and two shutouts, they were the first of his career.

2020 Platform Season

During his projected 2020 Platform Season (“PY”), Giolito saw in an increase in ERA (3.94), WHIP (1.24), HR (27), and walks (74). Giolito’s strikeouts also decreased from 228 to 212.

With a record of 12-10, Giolito’s 12 wins were tied for 18th-best among 73 qualified pitchers in baseball, and his 10 losses were tied for 10th-best among those same pitchers. Moreover, Giolito’s ERA of 3.94 was outside the top-20 ranking among those same pitchers and only 12th-best in the AL.

Ultimately, the decrease in performance in key pitching categories will prove to be influential in determining Giolito’s salary for the 2021 season.

Market Theory

The theory of the market is difficult to discern. Starting pitchers who are eligible for arbitration for the first time in their careers are not rewarded well.

The highest salary in the marketplace was set by Dallas Keuchel in 2016. Coming into arbitration, Keuchel had already won a Cy Young Award, two Gold Glove Awards, and had an All-Star Game appearance on his resume. Keuchel also finished fifth in the AL MVP voting during his 2015 Platform Year. Additionally, he had nine complete games by 2015 and three shutouts. Keuchel was rewarded handsomely with a salary of $7,250,000. Since that season, no other pitcher has come close.

Dontrelle Willis (Marlins) initially set the high mark for his first year of arbitration (2006), which was matched by David Price (Rays) in 2012 and later Shelby Miller (Cardinals) in 2016 at an amount of $4,350,000.

Take a look at each pitcher’s platform season:

Keep in mind that the market seems to value and reward various factors when it comes to arbitration, including All-Star game appearances (especially in a pitcher’s platform season), double-digit win seasons throughout a career, Cy Young and MVP votes, and seasons with at least 200 innings pitched. Evidence also suggests that complete games and shutouts are taken into consideration when rewarding salary, although not dispositive. There is no clear delineating pattern or trend by which to follow in this market.

2021 Salary

  • Projected Team Filing: $3,575,000
  • Midpoint: $3,750,000
  • Player Filing: $3,950,000

Lucas Giolito should be rewarded with a salary of $3,575,000.00 for the 2021 season due to his inconsistent ERA totals as well as his inability to reach 200 IP in a season.

Historical Comparisons

1) Robbie Ray (Arizona Diamondbacks)

Unlike Lucas Giolito, Robbie Ray made an All-Star Game appearance during his Platform Season (2017) and received Cy Young votes that same year. Ray’s post-arbitration salary of $3,950,000 is among the highest of the class of starting pitchers who made between $3-3.9 million following their first year of arbitration.

Although Ray only had double-digit wins once in his career prior to the 2018 season, and Giolito has done it three times, Ray’s 2.89 ERA during his PY was fourth in the National League in 2017. Giolito’s 3.94 Platform Year ERA was only 12th-best in the AL. Moreover, for his career, Giolito has never had an ERA below 3.00 in a year in which he pitched at least 100 innings.

The market rewards those pitchers who have had a sub-3.00 ERA, although this is not a determinating factor. For example, Mike Clevinger (Indians) and Tanner Roark (Nationals) posted ERAs of 2.71 and 2.83, respectively, in their platform seasons. Each pitcher received a salary above $4,000,000 as a result. In fact, Roark at that point in time had never had an All-Star Game appearance, although he did have a double-digit win season and placed 10th in the Cy Young Award voting in his 2016 Platform Season.

Although Giolito may have more double-digit win seasons than Ray, his inconsistent numbers and inability to achieve an ERA under 3.00 will likely result in a salary below that of Ray’s $3.95 million.

2) Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates)

Cole’s numbers, on paper, might be better than most in this class. He added an All-Star Game appearance to his resume in 2015, as well as a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting and 19th in the NL MVP voting.

However, three separate stints on the Injured List in his 2016 PY likely hurt his case in arbitration. Cole finished the year with a 3.88 ERA and a losing record of 7-10. However, he had already recorded double-digit wins in each of his first three seasons and has never had an ERA above 4.00. This led to a first-year arbitration salary of $3,750,000.

Giolito’s season-by-season ERA totals likely serve as a detriment to his case as he only pitched to an ERA under 3.00 in a season in which he had under 100 IP, whereas Cole had an ERA under 3.00 in a season in which he pitched over 200 IP. Even setting aside the injuries that derailed Cole’s PY, his 3.23 career ERA is much better than Giolito’s 4.41 career mark (factoring in 2020 predictions).

3) Sonny Gray (Oakland Athletics)

Gray’s fatal flaw is his ERA above 5.00 during his 2016 platform season. Gray was awarded a contract of $3,575,000 for 2017, but by all accounts, his resume otherwise points to a player that should have received a contract north of $4 million.

Gray, like Giolito, has had at least two double-digit win seasons (Giolito has had three). Moreover, Gray was an All-Star during the 2015 season and finished third in Cy Young voting. However, Gray had already fired 200 innings twice at this point in his career. Gray also had an ERA under 3.00 two times, including in his All-Star season in which he also threw 208 IP.

Although Gray might have a slight edge over Giolito in that he leads in categories valued by the market such as IP and ERA, Giolito achieved an All-Star appearance in his PY and has the big win years. When weighing the various factors, this likely makes his salary on par with that of Gray’s.

Current Class Comparisons

I won’t dive too far into the current class comparisons as it is too unclear as to who may make an All-Star team, have a Cy Young caliber season, or even how many games will be played in 2020. However, here are some players I think will set the 2021 market and can be a good measuring stick for a determination of Giolito’s salary.

For argument’s sake, here are the 2020 predictions for three pitchers listed below.

1) Walker Buehler (Los Angeles Dodgers)

Buehler finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018 and ninth in the 2019 NL Cy Young voting. Additionally, he made his first All-Star team in 2019 after pitching to a 14-4 record with a 3.26 ERA, which ranked 14th in all of baseball among qualified pitchers.

Walker is one of the more dominant hurlers in the National League and is slowly building a stellar postseason resume (1-1 with a 2.72 ERA and 44 strikeouts).

Putting aside 2020 predictions, Buehler has recorded double-digit wins twice and posted a 2.62 ERA across 137.1 IP in 2018. If he can replicate his 2019 performance, and produce an All-Star appearance and maybe more hardware in 2020, chances are he exceeds Giolito’s 2021 salary and finds himself in the range of $3.7 million or more.

2) Luis Castillo (Cincinnati Reds)

Castillo might provide the best comparison to Giolito and likely falls within the salary range of $3.5-3.7 million. Castillo, like Giolito, was an All-Star in 2019 but also finished eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2017.

Castillo, taking 2020 predictions into account, will have had two consecutive seasons with an ERA over 3.00. Moreover, he has three double-digit win seasons and has never thrown 200 IP in his career.

3) Brandon Woodruff (Milwaukee Brewers)

Woodruff was an All-Star in 2019, having posted an ERA of 3.62 (3.67 in the first half) in just 121.2 inning pitched. Excluding 2020 predictions, Woodruff has only one season of double-digit wins (2019) and only one season in which he pitched over 100 innings (2019).

Unless Woodruff delivers a stellar performance in 2020 with multiple awards or another All-Star Game appearance, expect him to be awarded a salary in the low $3-million range and below that of Giolito’s.

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