Lakewood is not what you expect when you think of minor-league towns. Just off a main road not far from a recently rebuilt Jersey Shore, Lakewood is not small town America. It’s overcrowded New Jersey, within commuting distance of our nation's biggest city, a place where it's go big or go home. It's not the kind of place you expect to see perspective-altering performances from 19-year-old kids in A-ball.
I saw one such outing from Lucas Giolito last week. It wasn't an outing that was exceptional or extraordinary by his standards, though it was among his first since the Nationals took the reins off and let him work deep into games like a normal starting pitcher. No, by Giolito's standards this start was rather pedestrian—he generated poor contact without striking out hitters at the astronomical rate at which he has set the bar.
Just over two years ago, in this same Lakewood stadium, I sat in on a similarly mundane performance from a similarly talented pitcher at a similar age, watching Jose Fernandez cruise through a Lakewood lineup, dominating without breaking a sweat or using all of the numerous weapons at his disposal. It wasn't his best performance, either, but it was plain to see on that night why what we've seen since isn't surprising.
And it is with that similar context that I can confidently say Lucas Giolito is the best pitcher I've seen at that level since Jose Fernandez.
They are different, these two, but there are similarities. Fernandez was 19 years, 6 months and 11 days old when I first saw him, and Giolito was 19 years, 11 months and 8 days old last Wednesday, close enough to make a legitimate comparison between the two. Both are power-armed right-handers whose arsenals consist of plus-plus and possibly elite fastballs and similarly dangerous curveballs, and feature changeups that show potential but that they simply haven't needed at this point in their careers. Both were selected in the middle of their respective first rounds, slipping for reasons out of their control—albeit very different reasons—despite their obvious talents.
But for all of their similarities, they are also different. There is apprehension in my calling the two of them together for comparison's sake, with the fear being that even a player of Giolito's caliber might not be able to live up to the otherworldly standard set by Fernandez. But the similarity of the context in which I saw them, and their lofty statuses as prospects, wouldn't allow me to watch Giolito's outing without the thought of a young Fernandez in the back of my mind.
On the night I saw him, Fernandez flashed the 95-96 mph velocity we saw from him before his injury, but it was a 92-93 mph two-seam fastball that allowed him to dominate, single-handedly keeping the Louisville Slugger company employed for another year. It was a pitch he was able to control, but proved to be as difficult to command as it was to square up. He threw it for strikes, but not necessarily the strikes he wanted. With movement that was, at times, more than the width of the plate, it was more than effective as long as he got it close, which he did frequently.
Giolito's fastball was very different. His over-the-top delivery gave him better command than Fernandez showed at this stage of his career, but not nearly the movement. Reports have had him as high as 97 mph, but on this night he sat from 92-95 mph, plenty fast enough to miss bats but not the elite velocity for which he is known. Still, the command was almost pinpoint (with the exception of one fastball over the middle of the plate that Dylan Cozens deposited in the center field bushes), and he attacked hitters with a plan to work the inside corner and the outer half.
Where the comparison really holds up is with the elite breaking balls. Fernandez's version then was much as it is now, a sweeping two-plane pitch that has both horizontal and vertical break. Giolito's doesn't have the horizontal movement that Fernandez's does, but it has perhaps even more downward break. He threw it sparingly on this night, saving it primarily for two strikes to finish off unsuspecting hitters like an executioner dropping the guillotine without reading the victim his rights. It was, perhaps, even more devastating to left-handed hitters than right, the sign of a truly fierce pitch.
The changeups are where this gets really interesting. At this level, Fernandez threw almost none because he simply didn't have to. In the bullpen before the game, however, you could see that the pitch was there, and that it had potential to be yet another weapon. It wasn't on the elite level of his other pitches, but it was good enough to be an unfair addition for a pitcher who could already make a baseball do the things he could.
The same can be said for Giolito, but he is not satisfied with terrorizing the Sally League with fast and curveballs. A sign of extreme maturity, he is willing to sacrifice current success for future development. That's simply not a 19-year-old thing to do.
Giolito used his curveball sparingly on this night because it was a night clearly dedicated toward the development of his changeup. He threw the tertiary pitch frequently, to hitters left-handed and right, early in the count and late, when ahead or behind. The pitch is a work in progress. It doesn't have great movement, although it shows much more life in mid-inning warmups, something I haven't seen often. The ones he threw in games, however, where thrown for strikes with relative consistency, and with arm action identical to the rest of his pitches, creating great natural deception. Even without the movement, the pitch was effective, generating swings and misses thanks to the change in velocity. It's a pitch not nearly on the level of his other offerings, but one that has potential.
The arsenals are similar, but watching these two young men provided two vastly different experiences. You can see the future in Giolito, the development and the projection that makes him the top pitching prospect in the game. You can see the perfect pitcher's frame, one that can still stand to add 20 pounds to increase his durability. You can see him building up strength, inning by inning, on the road back from injury. You can see what he can and can't do just yet, but what he'll be able to do soon.
With Fernandez, I saw a major-league pitcher. Not a guy who projected to be one down the road, but one who already was. What made Fernandez so impressive, both at this level and after the completion of his rapid ascent to the majors, was the completeness of his abilities. You could have taken him on that day and put him on a major-league mound and he would have been fine, and the Marlins just about did 10 months later.
Giolito, on the other hand, isn't ready for the action the way Fernandez was. That's not a knock on Giolito, who is 19 and isn't supposed to be major-league ready. That he's the game's top pitching prospect and we say this about him is a testament to just how impressively rare it is to see what Fernandez has done.
Yes, Giolito is the best A-ball pitcher I've seen since Fernandez, but that since in there is a key word. He's not Jose Fernandez, at least not yet, though he is working with the Fernandez starter kit. Giolito has the potential to be that kind of dominant pitcher, but he's not yet grown into the man, physically, that Fernandez already was at this point in his career. While Fernandez stood out physically on the field, looking like a man among boys, Giolito looked like a fellow teenager on the field, just one who happened to be better than all of his friends, the Benny Rodriguez to his fellow Sandlot compadres.
Unlike Fernandez, whose time as a prospect was over in the blink of an eye, Giolito should be with us for a while. The Nationals will take their time with him, and rightly so. He'll take the more traditional developmental path through the minor leagues, and despite our now-spoiled nature of immediate prospect gratification, that's okay.
But having seen the pair in the same context, it's not unreasonable to put them in the same conversation, even if it's to point out their subtle differences, some of which are no more than that. The similarities are amazingly strong enough that it's a conversation worth having. They're not the same pitcher, and Giolito is not the "next Jose Fernandez," but when scouting we look for comparisons, and watching Giolito throw in Lakewood couldn't help but conjure up memories of having seen this somewhere before.