No one cares about middle relievers, for many reasons. There are so many of them, and they all seemingly have weird names. Plus, they (like pitchers overall) can vanish instantly, their skills evaporating without any explanation. And yet, sometimes a player will rise above the masses of obscurity, via unmitigated, unfettered dominance. Ken Giles has done just that.
Who is Giles? A 24-year-old, right-handed pitcher, who just had his rookie season for the Philadelphia Phillies. With only one hold (and zero starts) to his name, he probably doesn't garner much recognition from casual fans — until said fans realize that, among relievers with at least 40 innings this year, he ranked:
Yeah, he's awesome.
Giles never made a top prospect list, in case you were wondering. He didn't particularly deserve to make them, either: In 141.0 minor-league innings, most of which he accrued in relief, he had a mediocre 3.77 ERA. Despite his dull past, however, he excelled at the highest level in the world. Jonathan Papelbon (and his $13 million 2015 price tag) might have attracted most of the coverage, but Giles made more of a difference for the Phillies.
How'd Giles do it? This is where it gets interesting. See, coming up through the minor leagues, Giles had the reputation of an all-fastball guy — he clearly possessed dominant heat, but he'd need something else to move up. Thus, the improvement of his other pitches (or pitch, perhaps) would dictate his success.
After a semi-promising 2012 campaign, in which Giles punched out 111 batters across two levels of A-ball, Marc Hulet attributed much of it to a non-fastball member of his repertoire:
He entered pro ball with just one usable pitch but has made significant strides with his slider that now has the potential to develop into an above-average offering.
Still, though, Giles would certainly derive any future success from his fastball; it impressed Hulet enough that he dubbed it the "biggest...in the organization".
Jump ahead to 2014. Giles certainly had a respectable heater, as it gave him 1.31 runs above average — good enough for 42nd out of 171 relievers. But it couldn't touch his slider, which demolished opponents to the tune of 3.42 runs above average (11th in baseball).
Where, exactly, did that come from? Giles spoke on the matter:
"I've been working on [the slider] for years now. I just started to figure it out about a year ago -- probably less than that."
"From there, it was just getting the reps in and making myself throw it, and that's all it took -- the more I threw it, the better it got."
In this case, practice apparently made him perfect.
Will Giles's gains hold going forward? If we believe Steamer, only to an extent: It thinks his ERA and FIP will rise to 2.77 and 2.96, respectively. This would primarily come as the result of regression with regards to walks, which comprise another interesting element of Giles's breakout.
At every level of the minors, Giles had poor control. Hulet noted as much in the aforementioned scouting report, and the stats (13.9% BB% in his minor-league career) bear it out. Even in the breakout 2012 that prompted Hulet to cover him in the first place, Giles issued 50 free passes. That probably explains why Steamer doesn't buy into his 6.6% free pass clip from 2014, and why it thinks that'll rise to 10.2% in 2015.
But what if Steamer's wrong? What if, say, a brilliant statistician had developed some sort of regression formula to determine the validity of a pitcher's walk rate? And what if that equation seemed to think that Giles didn't limit his walks through luck, and that given his Strike %, his Looking Strike%, and his K%, we would expect him to have walked 6.5% of the batters he faced?
Indeed, Mike Podhorzer's equation lends some credence to Giles's numbers. Nor is this a small sample size issue: Giles's 166 batters faced on the year puts him just four below the threshold for walk rate stability. If that control holds up, Giles will remain on the top.
Then again, he's still a middle reliever. Why does he matter if he doesn't finish games? Well, he might not see action in the ninth for now, but that much could change henceforth. Papelbon can leave Philadelphia after 2015 (assuming his option doesn't vest), and when he does, the team will need a new closer. Assuming all goes well, Giles should step in and capably capture a good deal of saves — the stat that makes a star out of anyone.
Or, it could happen even sooner than that. In a shocking turn of events, the front office recently recognized the pitiful state of the club, and admitted that they'd need to rebuild. As a pitcher with two years before arbitration and five years of team control in total, Giles undoubtedly tantalizes several teams that desperately need bullpen help. A move to Detroit or Los Angeles might occur this offseason, and with it would come a shot at fame. With that deadly slider, and that surprising control, Giles can certainly seize the moment if it comes.
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Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.