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Ken Giles is Pitching Better than You Think

Despite one terrible outing, Giles has been solid so far this season. So that begs the question, how good can he be?

Cleveland Indians  v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Over the past year, perhaps no name associated with the Houston Astros has elicited as much controversy than that of “Ken Giles”.

You could know absolutely nothing about baseball, ask three knowledgeable Astros fans about Ken Giles, and receive three completely contradictory answers. “Ken Giles? Dude sucks,” one might say. “A hundred mile Giles, bro? That’s my closer,” goes another. The third is quiet, but when pushed, he simply shrugs his shoulders and mutters “eh?”.

At some point I’ve probably thought all three things about Ken Giles. Actually, it seems, I’ve thought all three things about Ken Giles in many different instances, and occasionally even at the same time. Giles is an odd person and perhaps that’s why he’s become such a frustratingly polarizing player - because Astros fans cannot figure out what exactly he is supposed to be.

At times, he looks like a top-tier bullpen pitcher. He certainly has the blazing velocity, dizzying strikeout stuff, and overall charisma/moxy to play the role of a ninth-inning ace - I mean, he punched himself in the face after a bad outing earlier this season. But at other times he looks completely lost on the mound.

For many years, philosophers have had to struggle with seemingly unanswerable questions - what’s the meaning of life? Is Joe Flacco elite? Do humans really have free-will or do we instead live in a deterministic universe? Now, they have another one to keep them up at night - just how good is Ken Giles?

I also want to go ahead and lay this out there - I do not think the role of the Astros’ regular season ‘closer’ really matters. At all. So in essence, this article is not supposed to be an argument about whether or not he should close games, because frankly I don’t care. Saves are not all they’re made up to be, and a cutting edge team like the Astros knows far better than too limit their best relievers to a strict closing role.

To me, it seems like Giles taking hold of the closer role is AJ Hinch giving him a sort of pride thing - things like these still matter to players, and they certainly still matter in contract negotiations. If Giles can get an extra kick by playing Ricky Vaughn every couple nights, than by all means, go for it.

What this article is trying to quantify is Ken Giles’ reasonable expected performance level - is he the best reliever on the Astros? Is he even a good reliever? Or is he just too inconsistent to give a real label too?

Last year, Ken Giles season was a tale of two halves - he was good during the regular season, great even. But once it became October, Ken Giles turned into some sort of half-Tony Sipp, half-Chad Qualls abomination. I’m not exaggerating - in the postseason Giles made seven appearances and in only one of those did he fail to allow a run - in that particularly outing, he still gave up a hit and a walk in one unscathed inning.

By the end of the Astros World Series run, Giles had seen 7.2 innings, allowing twelve hits, six walks, and three homers for ten earned runs (side note - not just picking on Giles, the entire bullpen was terrible throughout the playoffs. Also - several players mentioned the World Series balls were more difficult to grip).

How has Giles been recovering since his nightmarish October? Well, Giles stat line in 2018 is not one we are accustomed to. Through 15 innings, Giles has shockingly allowed zero walks and given up just one home run.

His strikeout numbers have been surprisingly underwhelming, as his 7.20 K/9 Rate is easily on pace to be a career low. Very small sample size - I know and I get it - but its still strange that Giles is doing the opposite of what he’s made a career of this far into the season.

Is his approach any different? Well, for starters, he is going to his fastball far more often this season than he ever has in the the past. Giles, a strictly fastball-slider pitcher, has traditionally gone to his four-seam about 57% of the time. This year, he has gone to the fastball on 65.7% of his pitches. If the thesis behind that approach is to limit free base-runners, its working out well so far.

Giles’s heatmaps also show, whether by design or accident, that he is locating his pitches lower in the zone this season than in years before. Perhaps Giles is trying to become less susceptible to fly-balls turning into homers, and his ground-ball rate of 43.5% on the season is just about league average. Once again, so far so good, as Giles has allowed just one home run in 2018.

Giles 2017 Pitch Locations
Giles 2018 Pitch Locations

But we’re still not any closer to answering the burning question - is Ken Giles any good?

Unfortunately, the advanced ERA indicators on the season are no closer to a consensus than we are. Ken Giles’s actual ERA on the season 3.60. His FIP is 2.41, his xFIP, which is similar but normalizes home run rate, has Giles at a 3.59 expected ERA. His SIERA, which accounts for even more variables, has him split down the middle at 3.14.

If we want to look at something statistically sound, current and relevant, but not reliant on small sample sizes, perhaps projection machines could come closer to giving us a somewhat definitive answer on what we can expect Giles production to be going forward. Conceptually, projection models attempt to find a player’s current underlying talent level and predict their future performance based on it.

Projection models account for hundreds of variables and can sometimes predict player progression at a scarily accurate rate, and each team in the league has a unique system of their own. Here is a collection of the top available projections for Ken Giles, again courtesy of FanGraphs (Steamer has been graded as the most accurate of the following):

Giles Projections

Projection Model ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP WAR
Projection Model ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP WAR
ZiPs 2.98 2.61 12.15 2.75 0.8 0.332 0.9
Steamer 3.31 3.23 11.1 3.13 0.98 0.293 0.7
Depth Charts 3.14 2.92 11.63 2.94 0.89 0.319 1.2
THE BAT 3.35 3.55 10.13 2.99 1.06 0.294

Finally, we’re starting to get closer to a clear picture. While all slightly different, all models agree Giles is a high strikeout, low three’s-ERA reliever who struggles a bit with walking guys. The projection models also unanimously expect Giles to be the Astros most effective reliever in 2018 in terms of ERA, and by a good bit.

The point is, while volatile, Giles still has the talent of a very good relief pitcher. I implore fans to chill out when it comes to Giles - it seems he already puts a lot of pressure on himself to be the guy, and it doesn’t seem like pressure is always the best thing for him. It’s like when Texans fans booed Matt Schaub and put for-sale signs in his yard - it’s only making the situation worse, as guys that rely on confidence are not going to magically turn things around when the entire city turns on them.

The Astros have one of the deepest bullpens in the game, so the next Ken Giles has a bad outing, realize it isn’t the end of the world before you unleash your hot takes to twitter. Let’s try to appreciate Giles for what he is - a really good young player who is on the brink of taking the jump into elite category if he can get a few things together.