On February 18, 2021, just ten days before the first spring training game and forty-one days before the first game of the regular season, the Seattle Mariners signed a high-upside reliever; one that in his 2019 season succeeded on 23 of his 24 save attempts. Our editor-in-chief Kate Preusser noted that Ken Giles signing right before the 2021 season began was not an investment for that campaign, but rather our current one for 2022. Giles would miss the entire 2021 season still recovering from Tommy John surgery he had in September of 2020, but would - ideally - return to contribute for a full season in 2022. Whether that investment pays dividends remains to be seen, but all indications so far suggest it’s likely it will.
Like anything that includes a human element, determining value for free agency contracts can be more than simple data crunching, as Grant Bronsdon covered here. The Winner’s Curse he discusses in that article probably doesn’t apply to the Ken Giles free agent signing of last off-season. Of course, value for relievers is often completely arbitrary, given the volatile nature the role is infamous for, and how each reliever’s particular toolset can be used in that team’s relief plans.
For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at the last full season played by two relievers. We’ll call them Reliever A and Reliever B. Reliever A’s last full season was 2021, and Reliever B’s last full season was in 2019.
Reliever A in 2021: 2.22 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 86 strikeouts in 69 IP, K-BB% of 18% (a career low, under a 29.4% career average), 1.8 fWAR.
Reliever B in 2019: 1.87 ERA, 2.27 FIP, 83 strikeouts in 53 IP, K-BB% of 31.7% (significantly above their career average of 25.6%), 1.8 fWAR.
Kenley Jansen was our example Reliever A, and for the 2021 season, he made $20 million. This year, he signed a one-year deal with the Braves for 16 million. Reliever B is none other than the Mariners’ own Ken Giles, who for his 2019 season with the Blue Jays made 6.3 million, and stands to make 5 million in Seattle this season.
There are certainly a lot more comparisons and considerations when determining a player’s overall value, and I’m not saying that Ken Giles is as good as Kenley Jansen. Especially considering that Giles is coming back from a prolonged absence due to his TJ injury and recovery, his production levels are sure to be slow to return to any form of normal, and that no doubt affects the overall perception of his value.
For Giles to be of significant value to the Mariners’ plans this year, he doesn’t have to be as valuable as Jansen, or even 2019 Giles. In that stellar 2019 season, his fWAR was 1.8. In 2021, the leader among M’s was Paul Sewald with 1.4 fWAR. Sewald’s 2021 campaign was remarkably similar to Giles in 2019, with his team-leading 30.3 K-BB% just a shade under Sewald’s, and an equally high strand rate.
Similar to my comparisons with Jansen, I don’t mean to color Sewald’s unique accomplishments with a one-to-one comparison. Sewald far outperformed the team’s collective K-BB% of 15.7, which was good for seventh-best in MLB last year. Instead, my intention is to temper expectations and bridge the gap between the Ken Giles that was, the Ken Giles we’re likely to get, and the Ken Giles that might also still be.
Before a steep velocity drop in 2020 - the precursor to going under the knife - Giles’s fastball averaged a touch under 98 MPH, which he paired with a nigh-unhittable slider; in 2019, opponents slugged under .200 against it. Never leaning too heavily towards one offering or the other, it’s easy to see why he’s racked up a 33% strikeout rate over his career.
On Tuesday, Giles notched his first outing since September 15th, 2020, and understandably wasn’t his sharpest, walking one and allowing a run to score in an inning of work. His fastball, though, sat at around 95 MPH per the broadcast, and his slider was back to its old tricks on this wicked strikeout of Rafael Ortega.
Another thing that’s also working in his favor is the depth the Mariners are currently working with in their bullpen. The loss of Casey Sadler for the season no doubt stings, but the team seems to be committed to filling holes when they are needed, like they’ve since done with the addition of Sergio Romo. Also of note is that for much of last season there wasn’t any one true closer, something the fantasy community hates but which capitalizes on the depth of the bullpen. Servais’s handling of the bullpen worked as well as it did in part because he didn’t stubbornly stick to assigned roles. Instead, he went with matchups that worked situationally, and the Mariners will enter 2022 with the same strategy. This style will potentially benefit not only Giles’s needs for a cautious return, but how Servais might utilize him. Although he’ll likely be a top option for the later innings, don’t be surprised to see him come in earlier, when the leverage of the game may be at its highest point.
The Mariners don’t need Ken Giles to be an elite closer like in his best days, because even his career-worst numbers of 21.7 K-BB% and 0.8 fWAR could be of great value to Seattle situationally this year. If he approaches anywhere near his best and takes the lion’s share of save opportunities? That $5 million investment could pay off many times over.