When talking about relief pitching, closers are first (and rightly) going to dominate discussion – guys that come in and lock down the ninth inning. But lately, there has been a shift in the thought process, thanks in part to the Indians’ success in the playoffs with manager Terry Francona’s bullpen usage, towards the bullpen ace idea posited by Bill James many years ago.
Essentially, your best bullpen arm needs to face the most important situation since he isn’t in for much more than one inning (if at all) which isn’t necessarily always in the ninth inning. The Tribe used Andrew Miller in such a way and rode him to extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series. There’s clearly something to this idea, and perhaps a new age of bullpen usage.
After talking about one of the most dominant relief pitchers over the last few years, it probably seems a little weird to start talking about Ken Giles, who put up an ERA of 4.11 in 2016. But let’s not get too caught up in a statistic such as ERA, as it is very unstable for relievers considering how it’s calculated. Giles put up almost the same peripheral numbers in the two seasons before, and in both, he had an ERA below 2.00.
Overall, Ken Giles has simply been one of the most dominant relievers in the league since his debut, averaging 33.7% strikeouts on hitters faced, while maintaining league average walk rates. Most projection systems have his ERA falling back down to the low 2.00s – a safe prediction given the underlying numbers. He gets league average batted ball splits, focusing more on simply making hitters miss the ball. His overall contact rate last season was just 61.6%, while the major league average is 78.1%. Considering how many pitches will get thrown over the course of a season, this is just an insane amount of difference in contact.
There’s simply no doubt Giles could be one of the absolute best relievers in the league, and even as soon as this year. It might be easy to get hung up on his high ERA last year, but most of it was ballooned by an admittedly terrible first month, and his numbers were set straight from there on out. At the end of the season the Astros had enough faith in him to throw him in the traditional closer’s role, and he went 14 of 16 in saves and seemingly has the role locked up for 2017.
He has not only the stuff, but apparently the needed mentality needed to have success shutting games down, and to discount his tremendous body of work because of a bad month (which can also almost be attributed to one meltdown game) is reading too far into details, and a big overreaction.
Considering the Astros have followed more of a traditional closer role than the newer age bullpen ace, it would appear that Giles should be getting a majority of the ninth inning opportunities for the bulk of the year. Down the stretch, the team’s success as well as how other teams might be operating their bullpen, could dictate if Giles starts losing the save spots in favor of higher leverage situations earlier in the game. Jeff Luhnow is a very forward thinking GM which could mean the ninth inning decisions might start coming from upstairs, so we shouldn’t discount this possibility.
This point is an important one as we saw Andrew Miller, and later Aroldis Chapman, being used in roles less centered around one inning saves and in extended roles, and how saves are counted in fantasy as well as how the opportunities will start to line up. As many of the top save guys last season were on playoff or playoff bubble teams, they could lose some of those saves to the bullpen ace role, which might have some affect on Giles’ numbers on the leader boards if Houston stays with a traditional approach.
Despite all this, Giles is being drafted pretty darn low. He’s doing almost 20 spots behind Craig Kimbrel despite being extremely similar pitchers. His 102 ADP seems criminal considering how filthy he is, and him being in line for major save situations. Giles is going as low as 111 in CBS and Yahoo leagues, but he should be easily top 100. A bad month and not getting saves the entire season has discounted his value significantly, but don’t let conventional talk scare you off of him. Giles has, without a doubt, some of the better numbers among relievers – plus a closer’s role. He provides a fantastic return on value for a pick around 100, so pick him up (even a little early) as he has done more than enough to warrant that spot.
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