It appears as though Ken Giles may have turned a corner this weekend at Minute Maid Park against the visiting Tigers, arguably getting the toughest outs in the Detroit lineup each of the last two days. On Saturday in the 7th inning, Giles was able to get Miguel Cabrera to ground out and Victor Martinez to fly out before J.D. Martinez singled. The inning ended when the next batter, Nick Castellanos, struck out. Sunday followed a similar tune, this time in the 8th inning. Those same four players got another crack at Giles yesterday with Cabrera and Martinez striking out before J.D. Martinez reached on an error and Castellanos singled to center. Jarrod Saltalamacchia ended the inning on a groundout.
Each year that Cabrera has been in the league, he has finished in the top 27 of the MVP voting, winning the award in 2012 and 2013 and finishing 9th and 11th the past two years. He is also considered the best pure hitter in baseball and is one of the few batters that can bait a pitcher by looking utterly confused by a pitch only to hammer the same offering again later in the at-bat. Last season he struck out 82 times in 511 plate appearances (16%) which is one of the better marks in today's strikeout-heavy game.
These at-bats are only mentioned because they exhibit what the advanced analytics seem to hold true: Ken Giles is throwing the ball well, he is just running into some bad luck.
According to FanGraphs, Giles' fastball is still touching 96.3 miles per hour, down two-tenths from last year's average, but as the season goes on that number should see an increase with more games played before coming back down a touch towards the end of the season. At 25, Giles likely isn't losing velocity, and the difference is so small that it shouldn't account for three home runs allowed in 5.2 innings pitched.
FanGraphs also shows that his BABIP (batting average on balls put in play) of .222 is much lower than last season's mark of .311. Really all this says is that he has given up six hits in total and three of them have been home runs, but more often that not when a player makes contact, it's an out. The defense behind him has been well positioned, which plays into BABIP, but also the contact hasn't been terribly hard, either.
Now for the good stuff! Again, we are working with small sample sizes, but the early peripheral returns look good. For starters, Giles has a strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) of 9.0, or he has struck out nine batters and walked just one. He has pitched only 5.2 innings and already has nine strikeouts, which gives him a K/9 rate of 14.29. Last year his K/9 was 11.19 and his K/BBrate was 3.48. Right now he has doubled that strikeout to walk number and is well ahead of the strikeout per nine rate he set last year. He is throwing more strikes, which may account for the home runs to a degree, as batters know they'll get something in the zone, but it also feels like he is going out there with the mentality that he wants to throw nine of fewer pitches per outing. Either he will strike out the side on nine pitches, or retires them on balls in play. That hasn't always been the case, but it's a good mindset to have.
The last bit of good news comes from the three home runs that he has given up. The exit velocities on the homers have been 99.8 (Gregorius), 97.6 (Texeira) and 100.1 (Perez). The vast majority of long balls this season have been recorded leaving the bat at well over 100 mph, with a very small number coming in under that plateau. The softest home run of the year thus far was off the bat of J.J. Hardy at 92 mph, while the hardest was a CarGo shot that rocketed off the lumber at 119.3. Hardy's is the outlier, at nearly two miles per hour slower than the runner-up. Last year's two home runs allowed left the bat at 98.0 and 96.4, and that slight increase in exit velocity this season could be due to the number of strikes that Giles has been throwing as batters attempt to square up the pitch.
The fact that manager A.J. Hinch was comfortable going to Giles in the 8th inning of a one-run game on Sunday should show that the team has not been deterred by a couple of rough outings to begin the season. Hinch gave him the opportunity in a big spot on Saturday night, Giles responded, and was given a similar opportunity on Sunday. There will likely be more small tests like these in the coming weeks, but if Giles continues to respond and Luke Gregerson falters at all, it could be the hard-throwing right-hander that assumes the closer role before long.