What does return to form mean for Giles' future with the Blue Jays?
May 23, 2019
By Lucas Casaletto
Canadian Baseball Network
Relievers and volatility go hand in hand — a perpetual rollercoaster of mixed results.
A good bullpen is what almost every organization strives for, and often, front offices will carelessly overspend on relievers to achieve the daunting task of these failed starters guiding their team to victory through the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning throughout a 162-game season.
Skepticism is well-warranted because it’s rare for a reliever to maintain long-term productivity. Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley are some of the exceptions. Eric Gagne is one prime example that fits the volatility bill.
When the Toronto Blue Jays parted ways with Roberto Osuna last summer, it granted the team a fresh start. A clean palate, if you will. The same can be said for Ken Giles, albeit in different circumstances. Giles’ terrific 2017 regular season was overshadowed after the right-hander put together one of worst stretches in recent postseason memory.
In seven playoff appearances out of the bullpen, Giles gave up 12 hits, three home runs allowed, and 10 earned runs; all good for an 11.74 ERA, capped off by a horrific performance in Game 4 of the World Series in which Giles was the losing pitcher after surrendering five earned runs in a late-inning meltdown.
Despite winning a World Series ring, Giles wasn’t the same after that. He entered 2018 on a short leash, and after a solid first month, he continued to implode on the mound as a member of the Astros. The results led to general manager Jeff Luhnow searching for answers, acquiring a young closer nearing the end of a 75-game suspension for violating baseball’s domestic violence policy.
Morally questionable optics aside, the Astros got their guy with the Blue Jays banking on Giles thriving in a new city and for a new team. After going through the typical ups and downs in his first set of appearances with the Blue Jays, it seems Giles has figured it out, regaining a previous form that saw him rise baseball’s ranks as one of the league’s most dominant closers.
Qualified relievers (2014-2017)
Ken Giles cumulative (Phillies and Astros, 2014-2017)
It’s easy to see why the Astros acquired Giles from the Phillies in 2015 as the headliner of the Vince Velasquez trade. An electric arm with an ability to rack up strikeouts with ease, Giles quickly asserted himself in the American League. While his notable meltdowns and subsequent performance in the 2017 postseason garnered headlines, it wasn’t all bad for Giles in 2018, which is to say, he suffered a bit of bad luck before being acquired by the Blue Jays. His xSLG on his fastball was 46 points lower than his actual SLG. His FIP (2.28) and xFIP (2.99) were also a full run lower than his career-high 4.65 ERA, and his SwStr% remained stable (16.0%).
Giles has been money this season, turning it around in every sense of the word. He’s already accrued 1.0 fWAR - good for second in baseball among qualified relievers - his strikeouts are high, as per usual (13.9 K/9), and his ERA (1.31) is on par with his FIP (1.34) - which is a great sign early on. In terms of pitch usage and outcomes, not much has changed for Giles. He’s relying on two pitches - his fastball and slider - with his fastball velocity remaining intact (97 mph). His slider has been particularly nasty this season, generating 19 of his 32 strikeouts this season, which him throwing the pitch for a strike 41.9 percent of the time. Giles is keeping it simple and getting results.
With the Blue Jays set to lose a lot more games this year, Giles’ future is going to be a topic of discussion moving forward. The right-hander will earn $6.3 million this season and has one more year of arbitration eligibility before becoming a free agent in 2021. It’s reasonable to assume the Blue Jays front office will consider signing Giles to an extension and wiping out the third and final year of arbitration, but at this point, that doesn’t seem plausible.
Extending Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez is one thing, but for reasons highlighted earlier, it’s hard to envision Ross Atkins opting to sign a reliever to a long-term deal. It would have been interesting to see what the Blue Jays would have done with Osuna had he not forced his way out of the organization. Despite how great Giles has been, Osuna is younger (24) and a good closer in his own right, which leads me to believe the Blue Jays would have strongly considered extending Osuna.
That leaves Giles as one of the few Blue Jays with high trade value, currently, at least. Outside of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Montreal, Que.), Bo Bichette, and perhaps Danny Jansen, there doesn’t appear to be an untouchable on Toronto’s roster. As is always the case this time of the year, relievers quickly become wanted assets and considering how well Giles has pitched, barring a surprise extension, the Blue Jays should get plenty of calls on his availability. The Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, and Boston Red Sox are currently lacking a good, ninth-inning option, so Giles may or may not be of interest moving forward. Of course, the list expands if another contender wants to upgrade the back-end of its bullpen.
Giles is one of the few bright spots in what has been an otherwise ugly season thus far in Toronto. Whether the Blue Jays consider themselves “reliever believers” or skeptics, it doesn’t change the fact that Giles has been among the league’s best at his position for most of his career, and it’s been on display once again through April and May. The truth of the matter is, relievers are where they are because most of them failed as starting pitchers. In some rare cases, they pan out over an extended period. That isn’t meant to take anything away from Giles and a select few that have maintained a consistent level of production in recent years, but considering the current state of this Blue Jays team, it would be wise of them to seek out a team willing to pay up for Giles’ services. If the Blue Jays return to relevancy in a few years, who knows? Maybe they’ll have Giles to thank for his contributions, in some form, or another.
Statistics courtesy: FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Reference, MLB.com