2015 Phillies Report Card: Ken Giles
Relievers are fickle. It’s become a truism in baseball, due mostly to the recent ubiquity of analytics. The numbers show that it’s quite tough to predict what one relief pitcher will do from one season to the next. For example, in 2012, Fernando Rodney posted a 0.60 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays. This past season, he finished with a 5.68 ERA before the Seattle Mariners sent him to the Chicago Cubs. Neal Cotts: 1.11 ERA in 2013; 4.32 in 2014. Huston Street: 1.37 in 2014; 3.18 in 2015.
That being said, a handful of relievers have proven themselves to be reliable year in and year out. This list includes Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner. More recently, additions to the list have included Jonathan Papelbon, Greg Holland (before his injury), Aroldis Chapman, and Craig Kimbrel. Soon, we may be able to add Ken Giles to that list.
Giles worried us initially, failing to reach the high 90’s with his fastball the way he did last year. But as the temperature rose, so did his four-seamer’s MPH. When all was said and done, he averaged 96.5 MPH, 0.7 MPH down from the season prior. It was still good enough to register as the 11th-highest velocity among qualified relievers.
More importantly, Giles’ numbers were outstanding. He posted a 1.80 ERA with 87 strikeouts and 25 walks while allowing only two home runs in 70 innings. In 2014, he compiled a 1.18 ERA with 64 strikeouts and 11 walks while allowing one home run in 45 2/3 innings. By ERA, Giles’ 2015 mark was sixth-best among qualified relievers. His 2.13 FIP also ranked sixth. Other retrodictors, like xFIP, were less kind because it inherently assumes his low home run rate was a product of variance, not skill.
There’s reason to believe that Giles’ low home run rate — currently 3.1 as a percentage of fly balls allowed — isn’t much of an issue. From 2011 to 2015, among relievers who compiled at least 100 innings, six relievers were able to post a HR/FB% of five percent or lower: Blaine Hardy, Giles, Javier Lopez, Wade Davis, Javy Guerra, and Sean Marshall. If we expand the threshold to six percent or lower, our list grows to 20 pitchers. A regression from three to six percent in HR/FB% for Giles, in a single season, would only mean allowing one or two more home runs over a sample size of about 60 fly balls. In other words, if Giles’ low home run rate is a product of skill, great; if it isn’t, expected regression won’t hit him and the Phillies hard the way it would a starting pitcher.
The most impressive aspect of Giles’ 2015 season was that he not only stepped into the closer’s role and did a fantastic job, but he did so filling the shoes of Papelbon, who arguably has a Hall of Fame-caliber career (his grating personality aside). The Phillies traded Papelbon to the Washington Nationals in July in exchange for pitcher Nick Pivetta. Between Papelbon’s exit and the end of the season, Giles went 15-for-17 in save situations with a 1.71 ERA, striking out 33 batters and walking five in 26 1/3 innings.
Giles is 25 and won’t become eligible for arbitration until after the 2017 season. If the Phillies are able to rely on him the way they relied on Papelbon — and the way the Reds, for instance, have relied on Chapman — they will have an elite closer for years to come. One very large headache would be avoided on an annual basis. Relievers like Giles, who strike out a bunch of batters with high-end velocity while walking comparatively few of them, don’t come around very often. That’s also, however, an argument in favor of trading him at some point in the near future.