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White Sox fans are well-versed with Lucas Giolito’s resurrection. You can argue where he bottomed out in 2018 if you care to remember it. In terms of run prevention, he owned a 7.53 ERA in consecutive starts in late May. James Fegan pointed to his four-out flop on Sept. 4 against Detroit. I might point to the last start of that damnable season, if only because it was his second four-out flop of the month.
We became similarly well-acquainted with everything he did to not only climb out of the hole he dug for himself in 2019, but to actually ascend. The mental rewiring, the shortening of his armswing, the ditching of the curveball for a changeup that hitters still can’t see. He rode that reconstruction to an appearance in the All-Star Game, and only a couple of minor injuries prevented him from garnering more Cy Young support.
Because he didn’t quite reach a professional summit, and because he’d been plying his trade for a team with seven consecutive losing seasons, the details of Giolito’s revival aren’t as familiar to third-party baseball fans.
During the ninth inning of Giolito’s no-hitter against the Pirates on Tuesday night, my friend Mike, a Pittsburgh native and the biggest Pirates fan I know, texted me a question about something Jason Benetti said in the ninth inning.
Most people haven’t seen this show, or at least they might’ve missed the episode where Giolito underwent 20 sessions to reconfigure his neural pathways before the 2019 season. Giolito — I imagine that’s what the show would be called, italicized — lost the plot during its second season, critics hated it, the ratings tanked, and nobody would’ve been surprised if the network gave it the ax.
I sent Mike a link to that story in order to prove that Benetti was referring to something solid, and not just getting around to ingesting what Bill Walton left him. If sports were prestige TV, I’m not sure I would’ve spoiled it. More likely, I’d simply tell him, “Start watching at the beginning of the third season. The writers figured it out.”
But you can’t binge-watch a career on Netflix, which is one of the reasons we watch sports live, no matter how bad the team is or how much the carriage fees cost you. There’s nobody you can trust to guarantee it eventually gets better, which makes it all the more rewarding when the real-time events are as glorious as they were gutting.
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At 15 seasons and counting, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is the longest-running live-action sitcom in the history of American television, but it would’ve been canceled after one season had Danny DeVito not joined the cast to give it a big-name boost.
The only difference — and I mean the only difference — between DeVito and James McCann is that McCann didn’t quite give the White Sox a surge in publicity on celebrity alone. Aside from some general veteran know-how and a throwing arm that made baserunners reconsider their intentions, McCann wasn’t supposed to add a whole lot to the White Sox. He was just supposed to be a backup catcher. Remember, the Tigers non-tendered him, and without much in the way of first-guessing.
Otherwise, McCann and DeVito were basically made from the same mold. They could wear each other’s pants.
McCann became an All-Star with the White Sox thanks to a BABIP-fueled breakout, but after the Yasmani Grandal signing, he could’ve been used as a trade asset, given that he’s a year away from free agency.
McCann’s work on Giolito is what makes him more than just a catcher with a bat. His ability to serve as a foil turned the show into a critical darling, and if Major League Baseball handed out awards for Best Player in a Supporting Role, he’d garner a nomination for his work the last two years.
McCann isn’t a ringer and wouldn’t refer to himself as such, but he can’t help but marvel at the connection himself.
“I think that Lucas is an unbelievable pitcher and I think he has great stuff, and I think our relationship just kind of takes it to the next level,” McCann said. “He’s really bought into how I call a game and how I manage a game, and it’s worked. He trusts me, I trust him.
“It’s just kind of one of those things, that trust that we’ve had, I don’t know if I’ve ever had that with another pitcher in my career.”
I feel like McCann’s role in Giolito runs the risk of being overstated, if only because the personal-catcher talk started before Grandal had caught a game. It didn’t make sense to sign a veteran receiver to a franchise-record contract without giving him an honest shot to work with the team’s No. 1 starter. Why treat Grandal like another Josh Phegley?
That said, I respect the new levels of artistry that Giolito and McCann have discovered in their last two starts. One 13-strikeout start featured nine consecutive changeups. Another one resulted in a no-hitter. They’re an unbeatable rhythm section this month, never leaving the pocket no matter what kind of wack-assed time signature they try.
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McCann also deserves respect independent of Giolito, and Giolito. The White Sox signed Grandal because they needed a left-handed hitter who could draw walks and give pitchers the strike zone they need, but the Sox also needed to buoy themselves against a regression that was nearly certain at the catcher position.
McCann’s beating that back on two fronts. At the plate, he’s hitting .347/.411/.531 over 15 games, still wearing out the grass behind the second baseman on at-bats when he doesn’t get a mistake to drive.
Behind the plate, whether you judge by Baseball Prospectus’ metrics or Statcast’s version, he’s turned into an average framer, which is early validation for his own offseason attempt at redefining himself defensively.
I’m still not sure how much credit to give catchers for their receiving stats in a pandemic-altered season. The stat usually stabilizes with small samples, but these small samples overlap with umpires who came into the season cold. The strike zones were erratic early, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the leaderboards are also all over the place. I mean, Omar Narváez now rates above-average everywhere you look. That can’t be right.
The rest of the season will better inform us about true talents in 2020. Isolate McCann to his work on Tuesday night, and it supports the numbers. He didn’t lose a strike for Giolito, and he stole several.
Skeptics of framing might suggest that home plate umpire CB Bucknor should be credited for his generosity. Don’t worry — McCann gave him his due.
Even if I still want to see Grandal and Giolito figure each other out so the Sox don’t find themselves cornered by a narrative sooner or later, I don’t see a point in disrupting the roll that Giolito and McCann have built. At this point, I think I’d object to the “personal catcher” label more than anything. McCann is just a good catcher whose starts don’t have to be justified, especially when Giolito’s on the mound. Besides, he’s probably due for his own spin-off after the season, so we may as well enjoy the chemistry while it lasts.
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The only thing that tells us for sure that Giolito’s no-hitter wasn’t scripted: the empty stands. It’s been the elephant in the room during a first half that’s been immensely enjoyable otherwise. After everything White Sox fans have endured over the last seven years, they should have been in Guaranteed Rate Field to amplify the buzz with each passing inning, just like they should have been losing their minds when the White Sox hit four consecutive homers.
Instead, all of these incredible feats have been met with two-dimensional fans and canned applause, and those just can’t rise to the moment. As 108er MySoxSummer put it:
In previous seasons, the broadcast booth would simply yield to the environment. Between the rise and fall of the crowd’s roar and the cameras putting their spotlight on hopeful, anxious fans between pitches, the play-by-play guy might have to briefly address the count before the pitch, followed by the result, and that’s it.
Hawk Harrelson, who always tended to favor economy when describing the events as they happened, only said one word during the final at-bat of Mark Buehrle’s perfect game: “Alexei.”
I wouldn’t have that call any other way, but it wouldn’t have told the story in a game without fans. Without the audio/visual cues to inform viewers of the stakes, it was on Benetti to emphasize them. Silence was an option, but I don’t think it would’ve worked, especially since he had to sum up the first three seasons of Giolito so a national audience could better appreciate what was unfolding.
Some lines worked for me. Others, like the “deep on thought, the well-trained mind” example above, probably won’t stand the test of time. But overall, I thought he did an admirable job under circumstances nobody would have imagined just a few months ago.
The exchange I may remember more than anything occurred between the action, when Erik González, the last batter of the game, approached the plate.
Stone: Why don’t you take this one, partner?
Benetti: Like James and Lucas are a team, so are we.
If the theme of the night was partnership, this White Sox booth is better suited than any to convey it.
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A no-hitter would usually be the climax of a pitcher-centric story arc, but with half a season still remaining, White Sox fans should hope there’s some form of a second act. Philip Humber’s perfect game is the last White Sox no-hitter before Giolito’s, and he’s a cautionary tale of what happens when nobody has an encore in mind.
Like Humber, Giolito had survived some gruesome depths before experiencing elation. Unlike Humber, Giolito had a sixth-place finish in Cy Young voting as proof that his no-no wasn’t some fluke. Future peaks remain possible, and maybe as early as this season.
For instance, after his dud against the Minnesota Twins on Opening Day saddled him with a 17.18 ERA with just 11 or so starts remaining, I figured further Cy Young honors would have to wait a year.
Six starts later, he’s chopped his ERA down to 3.09, which is just outside the American League’s top 10. He’s second in strikeouts behind Shane Bieber, and third in innings behind Bieber and Lance Lynn. Those two will be tough to topple with their sub-2.00 ERAs, and that’s before roping in Gerrit Cole, Kenta Maeda and others. Still, I didn’t think Giolito could even be in the conversation, at least at the season’s halfway point.
Instead, it’s possible he’s getting meta by writing a comeback story within a comeback story, and who knows what possibilities an expanded postseason provides. Giolito may have shortened his armswing, but it didn’t reduce his colossal reach, and there’s so much left to grasp within those bounds.
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)