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The Psychology of a Grudge

Why Ken Giles will never be good enough for some Astros fans

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start with a shocking revelation: There are some people in the Astros fan base who don’t like Ken Giles.

Ok, maybe not a revelation so much as something that everyone knows, but the point is that Ken Giles as closer is one of the Astros’ most unpopular players. There is a special type of vitriol reserved for Giles that rears its ugly head after every poor outing and leads to constant gnashing of teeth and wailing of souls on almost every platform that the Astros are being discussed.

But why?

Hold on! Don’t run straight to the comments and write “He’s trash” before reading the rest here, because I have a theory. I’m not going to bring a lot of fancy numbers and do a deep dive to show how Giles isn’t as bad as people say he is, though I promise you that such numbers do exist. Nor will I sit here and tell you that Giles is super elite and people should always be confident when he comes on in the 9th, because he’s not and they can feel how they like.

However, I do believe that Giles gets a bum rap and I think that the reason is more than just his occasional terrible appearance. But first...

A Little Bit of History

Back in 2015 the Astros had a bit of a coming out party. Springer had developed into a more complete player, though he still had a little bit to go. Altuve was establishing himself as a superstar. Correa got the call up and was contributing. Things were going the Astros’ way, who surprised everyone by being one of the hottest teams in baseball to start the year and making a strong challenge for the division.

At the trade deadline everyone looked to the Astros to be buyers and make a splash for the first time in a long time. And they made that splash in the form of Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez for two of the Astros’ best prospects, Brett Phillips and Josh Hader along with Domingo Santana and Adrian Houser. It’s generally agreed upon that things... didn’t quite work out for the Astros.

Now I don’t want to cover that ground again, I’m not looking for stupid fights and that’s not the point of this article. But the reason I bring it up at all is because, by the end of 2015, it was looking increasingly likely that trade centerpiece Gomez was going to be a bust. Fiers was solid enough, but not worth the package given for him alone and the Astros had “lost” the trade. The fan base consensus was that if we had gone out and gotten a shut down closer we would have been in the ALCS, but instead we got a has-been and squandered our first postseason opportunity in years.

I consider that trade and 2015’s early exit from the playoffs to be the first time the grudge seed was sown.

The Giles Trade

The generally agreed upon reason for the Astros’ loss to the Royals in the 2015 ALDS was the lack of a bona fide closer. A 9th inning arm that can come in and cause grown men to quaver in fear and bats to char at the heat from his fastball. A man that would take us all the way to the World Series, laughing with aplomb as he chewed on glass instead of gum and fashioned cereal bowls from the skulls of his enemies. Once that was secured the Astros would enter their final form and murder any team foolish enough to step foot in Houston.

So it was that in the 2015-16 winter meetings Luhnow would pull off the Giles trade, something long expected by a lot of baseball pundits. I won’t go into all of the 7 players involved, but the big names in the trade at the time was Giles to the Astros and Vince Velasquez and Mark Appel to the Phillies, which will become relevant later.

The thought process at the time was that the Astros had plugged the hole in the bullpen. Finally, the Astros had their elite closer! He throws 100 MPH! He even looks like Brad Lidge! Giles was favorably compared to names like Kimbrel, Chapman, and Miller. He was going to take us from a rag tag group of underdogs to the champions we always knew we could be. This isn’t to say everyone loved the trade at the time. It hurt to trade Velasquez as a lot of people had penciled him in for the rotation, but a championship would dry all tears.

This is when the seed began to grow.

The Disaster of Early 2016

And so began what would be the Astros’ Championship 2016 Season thanks to our shut down closer. Unfortunately, Giles would come out in Spring Training and fall on his face. His performance was so bad that he wouldn’t start the year as our closer, instead deferring to Luke Gregerson while Giles was put in the set up role. It was thought that the plan would be to groom him a little more and let him figure it out and put him back in the 9th.

On the very first day of the season Giles would be called on to pitch the 8th inning in a game against the Yankees. He came on, all fire and brimstone in the near freezing temperatures of New York City that day, ready to prove his worth to a beleaguered fan base who just wanted to win.

And promptly gave up a home run.

He would get the Hold and Houston would win, but it was a poor start to his Astros career. His next outing would come two days later when he would replace Harris on the mound in the 8th with a runner on first and one out. A single and a home run later, the Astros would lose the game and Giles’ first impression had been made. For a good chunk of Astros fans, from that moment on he was garbage and always would be.

There were other factors as well. Gomez was struggling mightily and those two trades juxtaposed with each other would amplify the poor results for both. On top of that, Velasquez started 2016 very strong for the Phillies with a 16 K CG shutout in just his second start. Meanwhile, the Astros rotation, which Vince should have been in according to a lot of fans, was struggling and Houston was on its way to losing 17 games in April and last place in the division. We had “lost” the trade to the Phillies, the second such loss in as many years.

Now the seed is a fine, young grudge tree.

The 2017 Playoffs

Giles would eventually figure things out in 2016. He would still have the occasional poor performance like all relievers, but was put in the closer role and held his own for the rest of 2016. In 2017 he would have a good regular season and was a finalist for AL Reliever of the Year. But then came the playoffs.

He only had a single appearance in the 2017 postseason where he didn’t surrender a run. He gave up 12 hits, 5 walks, 3 home runs, and 10 earned runs in 7.2 total innings. He was easily the Astros’ worst reliever to the point that he was completely removed from consideration as a pitching option in the World Series. You can paint it however you want, he was out of gas, the balls were slick, whatever. He was bad, plain and simple.

After everything we had endured as a fan base for the last few years. The losses, the frustration, the flailing teams, all of that. And now we were so close to the top and here was this guy just stinking up the joint. A lot of the frustrations of the playoff losses were placed on Giles because he was so bad late in game. It was his fault.

And now we’re bearing fruit. Grudge fruit. I’m honestly not sure where this analogy is going anymore.

2018 and the Myth of “Garbage Giles”

So now we come to 2018 and the season has started out, well, good for the Astros. It doesn’t feel that way at times, and you can certainly make an argument that Houston should have a better record, but we’re doing better than 26 other teams. That’s pretty sweet. But as far as a lot of people are concerned, the relatively few woes of our bullpen this season can be blamed almost solely on Giles. He’s certainly brought up the most when discussing “the problem.”

A lot of people like to point to ERA and how, in big non-save situations, Giles has given up a lot of runs. Certainly more than you would expect from a supposed shut down closer. But if you really look at his appearances the tale is different. In 2018 he has appeared in 21 games. In those 21 games he’s given up more than one run only twice.

Those would be the NY game where he gave up the homer to Sanchez and the Cleveland game where Harris allowed his inherited runners to score. Beyond that, he’s had two games where he’s given up just a single run, and 17 where he didn’t allow any runs. Of those 17 no run appearances, 10 of them were perfect with no base runners.

So, to put it another way, 47% of his appearances were very good (no base runners), 33% of his appearances were plain good (no runs), 10% were satisfactory (1 run), and 10% were bad (3+ runs). Now, of course, the season is only about a third of the way through so these numbers will change by the end of the year, but that’s what we’re looking at so far in 2018 and it’s about what you can expect from a good reliever.

So What’s My Point?

The point is that Giles has really only had two bad outings this entire season. Yet everyone reaches for their heart medication whenever he comes on and hyperventilates if he gives up a hit. When we lose a game that Giles appeared in, regardless of whether or not he was responsible for the loss, we blame him. But, if you go back and look at the games, Giles has only been directly responsible for one loss in 59 games this season. One.

And yet, we have endless hours of debate on how he’s just not good enough. How he’s our worst reliever and should never appear in the 9th. People talk about clutching their chest and covering their eyes whenever he comes on. If he gives up a hit then it’s always “Here we go again, Giles just has to make it interesting,” even though he has made it boring in almost half of all of his appearances. Even when he wins people won’t forgive him for the sin of allowing a base runner to reach, something even the best relievers do.

And the reason is that some people are holding a grudge. Giles was supposed to be the guy. We feel like we were promised an elite, shut down closer to fix the bullpen, We weren’t, but we feel that way. And Giles is simply not the guy. He’s good, but he’s not elite because it’s hard to be elite, which is ultimately a fickle and hard to quantify term. Very few pitchers reach that pinnacle, and yet we continually punish Giles for it. Every poor performance is little more than confirmation of what people want to believe about him. And so, we eat the grudge fruit.

Man, I wish I had gone with a better analogy.