Over the last few months, we have made slow but steady progress profiling an assortment of free agent targets. Some players are better fits than others on the Yankees roster, but all are deserving of proper analysis. Today, I have the opportunity to examine one of the more unique cases on the market, who is also one of the more mercurial players in the league.
Any discussion about Ken Giles must begin with this memorable episode:
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s delve into the unique circumstances that make Giles an intriguing name on the reliever free agent market. It would be irresponsible to dive into Giles’ potential contributions without first clarifying that the righty will miss all of 2021 while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
It is not unheard of for a team to hand out a two-year deal to a player set to miss the first year while rehabbing from TJS. This offseason alone, Tommy Kahnle signed a two-year contract with the Dodgers after TJS cost him all but one inning of 2020, while Mike Clevinger inked his own two-year pact with the Padres. The deals were agreed upon despite both players being set to miss the entirety of the 2021 season. Other recent notable example of two-year TJS rehab deals include Nathan Eovaldi with the Rays, Michael Pineda with the Twins, and Drew Smyly with the Cubs, all signed in 2017. The Yankees themselves had great success with it many years ago with Jon Lieber, who provided stability to the 2004 rotation after missing the previous season.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “Oh great, another injury-prone arm possibly clogging up the roster and payroll.” Hear me out on this one, though — signing Giles is as close to a risk-free deal relative to the potential gains as you are likely to find. The fact that he would be rehabbing in year one of the contract automatically caps the amount he can expect to earn. And if in the second year he should return to anything resembling his best years, the Yankees will have signed a closer-caliber reliever for well below market rate.
The Yankees have certainly shown interest in the fireballer in the past. They almost traded for Giles in 2019, but were wary about the medicals of his elbow (interestingly, Ken Rosenthal reported the health records had been exchanged and squared away). Their unease was ultimately proven to be well-founded, as Giles underwent Tommy John surgery following an ineffective and injury-plagued 2020 that saw him allow four earned runs in only 3 2⁄3 innings pitched.
Operating under the safe assumption that his 2020 struggles resulted from the injured elbow, we are probably justified in throwing out those numbers and looking at his remaining body of work. It’s an impressive CV, as from his MLB debut with the Phillies in 2014 through the 2019 season, Giles compiled the fourth-most fWAR (9.7) of any reliever. In that time frame, he amassed 114 saves, pitching to a 2.67 ERA, 2.37 FIP, and 2.83 xFIP across 347 1⁄3 innings.
How was Giles able to compile such a dominant run? Saying he had a very good fastball and slider would be an understatement. Giles represented a rare combination of owning two of the very best versions in the league of each respective pitch variant. His average fastball velocity of 97.2 mph placed him seventh in the league from 2014-19. Looking just at 2019, his slider was 19th-best in MLB according to Statcast’s pitch value metric, clocking in at -3.2 runs per 100 pitches. That year, he tied with Gerrit Cole for the fourth-highest strikeout rate in the league at 39.9 percent.
There is no doubting that when healthy, Giles is one of the very best closers in the game. I like to think of him as a modern-day Brad Lidge. Both possessed untouchable triple-digit fastballs paired with sword-collecting sliders. Both fell off a cliff in a short time span: Lidge after Albert Pujols’ three-run NLCS homer, Giles due to injury. And just as Lidge experienced a triumphant resurrection while winning the 2008 World Series with the Phillies in his fourth-place Cy Young season, there is no reason why Giles cannot also achieve similar redemption with a successful recovery from surgery.