A Word Of Caution On Kenny Giles
The 2014 Phillies season is a barren wasteland in which Phillies fans have mercifully been given a beautiful oasis named Kenny Giles. As he rose through the Phillies minor league system, Giles was noted for his plus-plus fastball velocity and he has not disappointed. Obsessive radar gun watching in anticipation of triple digits is a must during Giles’ appearances but not only has he delivered on the promise of his fastball, he’s given a surprise gift to Phillies fans in the form of a wipeout slider. There was some buzz that Giles had a secondary pitch with potential, but the slider he brought with him to the Major Leagues is no development project — the purported potential has been actualized in a pitch that makes opposing hitters flail with utter abandon.
Outside of surrendering a home run to the first batter he faced, Giles couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the majors. Through 12.2 innings, he’s sporting a 0.71 ERA with 17 K’s and making the best hitters on the planet look positively foolish with his two pitch arsenal. According to Brooks Baseball, he’s cracked 100 MPH with his fastball in four of his twelve appearances. But the slider, oh, the slider. Since his call up, he’s induced 39 swings on the 77 sliders he’s thrown. Of those 39 swings, 21 (53.9%) have been whiffs. Fooling Major League hitters that badly is a phenomenal feat; it’s also one that’s unlikely to last.
According to FanGraphs the Contact%* against Giles in the majors is 61.1%. The only MLB pitcher (min. 20 IP) with a lower Contact% this season is Aroldis Chapman at 58.4%. Contact% for other notable relievers: Koji Uehara – 64.7%, Craig Kimbrel - 67.9%, Greg Holland - 65.9% and Jonathan Papelbon - 78.3%. Given the unlikelihood that Giles stepped on a Major League mound and immediately became the second best relief pitcher in the league at missing bats, it’s safe to bet that there will be regression in contact rate as hitters become more familiar with him. Additionally, his .208 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is unsustainably low, indicating that when hitters have made contact Giles has been the beneficiary of a significant degree of luck on the results.
(*FanGraphs definition of Contact%: “Total percentage of contact made when swinging at all pitches”)
That said, I don’t anticipate either an unsustainable BABIP or opposing batters adjusting to Giles being biggest threat to the performance we’ve already grown accustomed to seeing. With his stuff, he can be an elite reliever even after his BABIP normalizes and hitters have seen him a time or two. Instead, the biggest threat to Giles’ success (aside from injury) is likely to be the same thing Eric Longenhagen mentioned in his Arizona Fall League Notes last November: command.
So far this season, Giles has moved from AA to AAA to MLB with a comparable number of innings pitched at each level. Look at how he has performed at each level:
The first thing to note is that 12-15 IP at each level is an extraordinarily small sample size, barely two starts for a starting pitcher. The second thing that jumps out is his AAA line. Giles lit the world on fire with ridiculous AA numbers this April. Phillies fans clamored for him to be sent straight to the majors, but instead he spent the month of May in scenic Allentown where he walked nearly as many as he struck out as his dominance or, more specifically, his command vanished into thin air. It’d be easy to write off his AAA struggles as a small sample fluke if not for the fact he entered the 2014 season with a positively Aumont-ian 14.1% walk-rate in his minor league career.
Giles’ 6.7% walk-rate thus far in the majors is outstanding, but until there’s more proof than a short stint in AA and a short stint in MLB to prove his command issues are truly in the past, it’s wise to temper expectations, even just slightly. The fastball velocity is obviously elite and the slider is all that everyone hoped it might be and more, but he’s not the heir to the mighty closer throne without command.
So far, so good, but for someone who was still considered a development project as recently as a month ago, patience is still very much in order.