The Resurgence of Ken Giles

There’s a maddening midseason tradition of realizing April performances have subconsciously impacted our perceptions of players in foolish ways. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that the baseball season is long and small sample sizes are fickle tricksters, we inevitably look up in July to find out that a player written off for dead in April is actually doing quite well, thank you very much. It’s an unavoidable reality that first impressions matter and affect the way we view those around us. The perils of first impressions may have had no bigger victim this season than Ken Giles.

When a team gives up five players to acquire you (and a rookie-ball lottery-ticket-type prospect), expectations are inescapably large. Of course, this is the situation Giles found himself in when the Astros dealt a package of players highlighted by Vincent Velasquez and former #1 overall pick Mark Appel to Philadelphia in order to acquire the flame-throwing relief pitcher. The reason for the steep price Houston paid is that Giles was under team control for another five seasons. Intellectually, the first month of his Astros tenure shouldn’t matter any more or less than the ensuing five years but, realistically, it was inevitable that he’d be under a microscope for that first month.

As you probably know, April was an unmitigated disaster for Giles – undoubtedly the worst month of his (still brief) major-league career. What you certainly know if you’re an Astros fan — but may or may not know if you haven’t checked in on him in a while — is that, by and large, he’s returned to his old self since the calendar flipped to May.

Ken Giles 2016 Season
April 10 4 52 9.00 1.044 0.414 2.00 26.9% 7.7%
May-present 27 1 110 2.67 0.572 0.328 1.07 32.7% 6.4%

Perhaps the most shocking column on that table is the one containing home runs. Entering the season, Giles had allowed three home runs in his entire 115.2-inning career and then, in April, he allowed four homers in just 10 innings. It was a terrifying about-face in his results, but common wisdom at the time was to remain patient. His velocity was slightly down, but no moreso than is typical for the first month of the season. His pitches were still moving as they always had. The only notable change was a slight alteration in his release point:

Giles 15&16 Release Point

In the absence of any notable red flags, it was reasonable to have hope that Giles would right himself in time and, in hindsight, it appears that was absolutely correct. As reported by Jake Kaplan of The Houston Chronicle, Giles credits fixing a mechanical flaw with helping turn his season around in May.

Fixing a mechanical flaw keyed Giles’ turnaround. He had developed bad habits with his hand placement, an issue remedied via repetitions in side sessions. Hitters were able to see his fastball longer and it showed in his 9.00 April ERA. Now, the opposition is once again struggling to catch up to his heater.

Naturally, that’s an overly simplified explanation of his turnaround. The mechanical adjustment may very well have been the key to righting his season, but adding deception back into his delivery isn’t the only thing that has changed since April. His pitch-location charts suggest that command of the zone also played an important role.

Here is his fastball heat map with April on the left and May-to-present on the right:

Giles FA Location 2016

Giles’ fastball lived arm-side and up in the zone for the month of April, but he’s expanded his zone as the season has progressed by bringing glove-side fastballs back into his repertoire.

His slider heat map depicts another obvious problem and fix:

Giles SL Location 2016

Check out all those hanging sliders in April. Since then, his slider is doing what it’s supposed to do with more consistency: diving down and glove-side. It’s more than conceivable that his mechanical tweak in May also improved Giles’ ability to command the zone more fully but, whatever the cause, his improved command has been encouraging to see.

I’m a fan of happy endings, so I’d very much to wrap up this article right here on a positive note, but, unfortunately, I can’t quite do that. Despite the fact that Giles has returned to formidability, it’s not possible to assert that he’s completely back. His slider is generating whiffs, he’s racking up strikeouts, he’s avoiding the long ball, but one thing still missing for Giles is the ground balls. His ground-ball rate has fallen more than ten points from 44.8% in 2015 to just 34.0% this year. The flip side of this decline has been a rise in line-drive rate.

Rolling GB LD graph

During 2014 and 2015, Giles emerged as an elite reliever in large part because of his combination of whiffs, ground balls, and home-run avoidance. Until he’s able to get back to his old ground-ball rates it’s going to be hard for him to fully return to the level of success he enjoyed in Philadelphia.

But that’s getting somewhat nitpicky. Ken Giles is a very good relief pitcher right now even without the grounders. He’s also still just 25 and stands to be with the Astros organization for years to come. Which raises the question that’s followed him since his arrival in Houston: when will he take over the closer role?

The Astros’ current closer and All-Star, Will Harris, has been stellar this season. He gave up a run on April 7th, his first appearance of the year, and then didn’t allow another until June 11th! The only blip at all on his season was a four-run meltdown in his second-to-last appearance before the All-Star break. However, Harris doesn’t possess the electric arsenal and upside of a pitcher like Giles. The other main alternative to close out games continues to be Luke Gregerson, the expensive veteran in the pen who was also a successful closer for the Astros a year ago. I can’t imagine the Astros are in any rush to make a change, but if Harris begins to stumble, Giles has demonstrated that he’s ready to bypass Gregerson on the depth chart, step into the closer role and begin living up to the expectations placed on him this winter. First impressions mean a whole heckuva lot, but if Giles keeps up what he’s been doing, that awful April will eventually become a mere footnote on his Astros tenure.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

newest oldest most voted
Brians Sticky Sock
Brians Sticky Sock

“I’m a fan of happy endings”

So am I…