Lucas Giolito and Hagerstown’s flame-throwing rotation

VIERA FL, FEBRUARY 25: Pitcher Lucas Giolito talks to the media during practice at the Washington Nationals spring training camp in Viera FL, February 25, 2014. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Lucas Giolito, talking to reporters back in the spring. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

They chart each other’s games, their personalities fit together like puzzle pieces, and there is nothing but time on bus rides between Kannapolis and Lakewood and wherever. So lately, the starting pitchers at Hagerstown have all started to notice the same thing. They’ve known all along that Lucas Giolito and Jake Johansen throw high-90s gas. Hector Silvestre, the lefty, has been throwing some 94-mph fastballs. And didn’t Austin Voth hit 96 in his last start?

“We were kind of joking,” said Giolito, the Nationals’ 19-year-old top prospect. “Everyone is starting to throw pretty hard in our rotation.”

Hagerstown, 30-8 after Nick Pivetta pitched the Suns to a 4-2 victory Wednesday night, owns the best record in minor league baseball. The Suns do pretty much everything well – they’re hitting .284 and they’ve stolen more bases, 62, than any professional team. But the most powerful and promising piece of their team is a jet-propelled rotation that ranks among the hardest-throwing in professional baseball. Not only the minors. All of baseball.

Do the math: The Marlins, according Pitch FX data collected at FanGraphs.com, have the hardest-throwing rotation in the majors, with an average fastball of 93.9 mph. Giolito and Johansen both pitch comfortably faster than that.  Nic Pivetta can reach 95, but typically throws 91-92 mph. Voth has mostly thrown around 92 mph since the Nationals drafted him last year, and in his last start he touched 96. Silvestre has been hitting 94 recently, but most often throws around 90-91.

The data on minor league velocities is too incomplete to accurately compare with tracked-daily Pitch FX information. It cannot be precisely verified, then, but Hagerstown’s rotation would rank highly among the fastest-throwing rotations in the majors.

“It’s crazy,” Johansen said. “It’s nothing I’ve experienced. I’ve never seen five guys that can throw low-to-mid-90s and upper 90s. It’s something special. We definitely have something special going on here.”

The Hagerstown starters challenge each other and help one another, feeding off the starter before them. There’s Pivetta, the chatterbox who grew up in Canada. There’s Voth, the straightforward 21-year-old from Washington state who Manager Patrick Anderson calls “the silent assassin.” There’s Johansen, the flame-thrower from Texas who’s gaining confidence each start. And there’s Giolito, the slightly goofy California kid who never acts like he could be the best pitching prospect in baseball.

If not for elbow problems, Giolito might have been the first pick in 2012. The Nationals grabbed him at No. 16. At this time last year, Giolito was still in the final stages of his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Now, the Nationals’ patience is being rewarded. In his first action at a full-season affiliate, where he is almost three years younger than the average player, Giolito owns a 2.51 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings.

“Guys are a little more disciplined every time you go up” a level, Giolito said. “I still see a lot of guys cheating to the fastball. So it’s all about mixing up the pitches and dominating the inside part of the plate with the fastball. Even if they are cheating fastball, if you get it in on them, they’re not going to hit it very hard.”

Many evaluators believe Giolito may possess the best pure stuff in the minors – his fastball reaches 99 miles per hour, and his curveball behaves like a science experiment. “It’s unbelievable,” Johansen said. “Best I’ve seen.”

Giolito said that by now, his stuff feels the same as before surgery. The ability to command his fastball to each side of the plate took the longest to recapture, he said, and that remains his top priority. He also wants to throw his curveball for a strike more often.

“The curveball has been really good, but it’s been more of a sharp strikeout pitch, even when I’m trying to throw it early in the count for a strike,” Giolito said. “It gets kind of going behind the plate low.”

Giolito prefers the grinding, professional schedule to his one-start-a-week program in high school. His arm always fresh, he said, throwing a start, a bullpen session and another start every five days. He finds the travel fun. He lives with catcher Spencer Kieboom at the Conrads’, his host family.

“The guys love him,” Manager Patrick Anderson said. “He’s very humble. With that stature, everywhere we go, the first person they’re asking for to sign autographs is Lucas. I was really impressed with how he deals with it. He’s a mature young man for 19. The players love him. He’s taken that in stride.”

“There’s a purity to him,” Nationals assistant general manager Doug Harris added. “He’s so genuine.”

The glare Giolito feels is nothing compared to what Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper experienced. It could come close by the time he nears the majors, and he is comfortable with it.

“It’s just part of the job, I guess,” Giolito said. “I take pride in interacting with fans and making sure I get to every autograph whenever I can, do all that stuff. Because those guys pay your checks. You definitely want to take care of them and just be a decent person.”

Johansen, the Nationals’ first pick last season, returned to Hagerstown after he finished there last season. He is still working to harness his fastball, a heavy sinker that reaches the mid-to-high 90s. “At first,” Anderson said, “his command was a little bit shaky.”

On May 2, Johansen allowed eight runs, six of them earned, in 1 1/3 innings. Humbled, he told himself, “Wow, something needs to change. What is it?” Johansen pored over video and realized he left too many pitches up. He focused on peppering the lower portion of the strike zone. In his past two starts, Johansen has allowed one earned run over 10 2/3 innings on nine hits, walking just two.

“One hundred percent, it’s been mindset,” Johansen said. “I struggled early. I was just getting up on the mound and throwing the ball. In tough situations, instead of taking a step off the mound, taking a deep breath, relaxing and getting back to what I do – the process of it, executing pitches – I was just throwing the ball. Where I am now, I just maintain a consistent mentality, and that will feed the process. Which feeds results.”

Johansen described the staff dynamic as “fun competition,” each starter trying to match the last one. They also assist each other. Johansen figured out one way to set up hitters by watching Giolito pound inside fastballs, then throw his curveball over the outside corner.

The tight-knit pitching staff has led Hagerstown to win after win. Anderson will take no credit, but he can make an incredible claim. He also managed the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate to a preposterous 52-9 record, including the playoffs. And so, in the first 100 games of his managerial career, Anderson is 82-18.

“This has nothing to do with my record,” he said. “It’s the kids and how they play the game.”

They may not be together much longer. By midsummer, many will start to move on to Potomac – Voth has a 1.87 ERA, and Kieboom, Giolito’s roommate, is slugging .507. For now, they’re playing on one of the best teams in the minors, and they’re loving every day.

“It’s awesome,” Giolito said. “We’re all just getting better together.”

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