On the surface, Ken Giles was better in a Blue Jays uniform than an Astros one last season. He struck out more batters, allowed hits at a lesser rate, and his ERA was better by nearly a whole run. Compared to Giles’ standards, his 2018 season was a bad one any way you spin it. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all the highest marks of his career. Among the struggles, he had clubhouse issues that ultimately led to an unforeseen demotion to triple-A and a trade that sent him from a legitimate World Series contender to a non-playoff team.
But while the gripes with Giles were probably deserved, they were probably also overstated. His ERA didn’t match his peripherals, he had issues with BABIP inflation, and he was still striking out and walking hitters at an ideal rate.
Most of Giles’ issues probably lied in the quality of contact he was allowing. For most of the season, he was generating hard contact at a career high rate and getting soft contact at a career low. For a pitcher that relied on strikeouts to pair this with a declining strikeout rate was beyond sub-optimal. The 2018 season saw him allow the highest exit velocity for him in the Statcast era, along with him allowing an increase in barrel-percentage and hard hit percentage.
Moving away from the Astros organization is rarely a good situation for any pitcher’s performance, but a change of scenery looked like it could possibly help Giles, and that was the case. After a brief stint with the Astros triple-A squad, the trade to the Blue Jays sent Giles right back to the major leagues. Again, with a quick look, it might look like Giles’ times with the Blue Jays didn’t differentiate much from his time with the Astros. His ERA was still a measly 4.12 in 19 1⁄3 innings, with his K-BB rate staying the exact same.
The improvements Giles made lie deeper though. Remember the quality of contact issues he was dealing with in his time with the Astros? Well, the script on that essentially flipped post-trade. Pair those improved numbers with his always good K/BB ratio and you have yourself a valuable reliever.
Ken Giles Quality of Contact Splits
As a matter of fact, Giles might have seen the best stretch of his recent-career history in terms of quality of contact with the Blue Jays.
But where did this improvement come from? There was no significant change in velocity or repertoire. This didn’t appear to be a health issue. The answer may rest with the release points. These changes appeared pretty drastic and they match right up with the time of the trade. Giles made a complete transformation in the angles he created for the ball traveling to the plate. He changed his footing on the mound with a decreased horizontal release point and delivered the ball from a lower point with a drop in his vertical release point.
Giles now heads into 2019 with the fair assumption of having the Blue Jays closer role. He’ll have a clean slate, a longer run with adjustments that worked for him, and most importantly, a new scene. If these changes in release points did in fact cause the strides in quality of contact allowed, Giles could return to his old dominant form in 2019. If it was just statistical noise in a small sample size, there could be reason for concern with his declined strikeout rate. But at the moment, his change of scenery has him looking like an improved pitcher.