Kenneth. Astros Reliever GOAT.

2017 World Series, Game 4. The score is tied, 1-1 in the top of the ninth inning. In comes Astros closer Ken Giles to face the heart of the Dodgers’ order. Former number one overall prospect Corey Seager hits a single on the very first pitch. Justin Turner, who carried a 11% regular season base-on-balls rate, draws a walk, putting runners on first and second bases.

Then, on a 1-0 count, unanimous NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger belts a double, scoring only Seager.

Giles is removed from the game. Joe Musgrove relieves him and promptly allows four more runs, two of which are charged to Giles.

It’s a story that could have happened during any game, against any club, with any pitcher.  A handful of pitches against the heart of the order of the second-best club in baseball. A quick pull, and then the mop-up guy blows up.

But for Giles – he is now a pariah to a large number of fans.

Negativity Bias

My mom used to tell me, “It takes eight positive things to offset the feelings from one negative one.” I don’t know if the actual ratio is according to Hoyle, but that saying describes a real psychological phenomenon.

There is a thing called the negativity effect.  In simple terms, the negativity effect says that if three events are equal in all other ways, but one is positive (happy) in outcome, one is neutral, and one is negative (unfortunate), that the negative one has a greater effect on our psyche. We recall negative events more strongly than positive ones.

I have always felt that the negativity effect is extremely prevalent in fans’ perceptions of relief pitchers, and particularly closers.  Closers are inherently susceptible to unfair negative bias from their fans for several reasons:

  1. They are usually in the game during fans’ highest emotional states, which are more memorable; closers pitch during game parts generally perceived as as the most important – the end of the game with a smallish lead.
  2. By nature, their appearances are short and memorable. Though each appearance is a statistically meaningless sample, each ends in rapturous victory or crushing despair.
  3. Because of the somewhat artificial title of “closer” fans have higher expectations of these pitchers than they do of other relievers, and so their successes mean less because success is expected of “the best”, and their failures are more damaging to their reputation. Closers are expected to be perfect.

And because of the negativity effect, we remember the blown saves in these emotionally-charged moments by these pitchers with impossible expectations placed on them, and not the humdrum saves successfully earned. This gives fans an incorrect perception of a player prone to meltdowns in big spots.

Fan perception

For Giles, was Game 4 of the World Series really indicative of…anything?

He threw a sample of pitches so small that it means zero from an analysis standpoint. It says nothing about how good of a pitcher he is. It says even less about how he will perform in the future.

The only thing it meant was, in that moment only, he got beat by three of Major League Baseball’s top forty offensive players.

Sure, maybe he got the yips in the big moment, but isn’t it more likely that he just got beat in that one game by some incredibly gifted hitters?

Is he really all that bad?

In the eyes of many Astros fans, yes he is.  During the offseason, questions were rife: Who were the Astros going to tab to replace Giles as the closer for 2018?

It was a foregone conclusion, of course, that the Astros would, after the spectacular playoff failure that proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that Giles will never be able to handle the pressure of the closer’s role in big situations.

Pshaw.

Ken Giles is one of the best relief pitchers alive, and if the standards for relievers weren’t ridiculous, he would be on a borderline Hall of Fame track.

Yeah, I went there. And I’m right. And if you disagree, you are wrong, period.

I swear I am not picking on any particular fan, even if a conversation with a couple of them yesterday sparked my crafting of this Pulitzer-bound narrative. The claims below have been repeated ad nauseum by countless acquaintances among Astros fandom.

Falsehood Numero One: Ken Giles throws a hittable, flat fastball.

Wrong. Giles’ fastball, which regularly hits 100 mph, has a five inch horizontal break. Five inches is more than the diameter of the ball. So a batter deciding to swing before it begins to break will need to adjust mid-swing, or he will hit the ball in a part of the bat that will induce weak contact. It’s not a huge break, but coming in at 100 miles per hour, it is significant.

Not just that, but since coming into the league in 2014, Giles has induced a whiff on 12% of his fastballs, ranking him 50th among 136 qualified relievers.  Not elite, well above average.

But his slider…ahh, his slider. That one ranks 19th, with a 23% whiff rate.  Overall, Giles holds the 6th-best swinging strike rate in the major leagues since his rookie year in 2014.

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Will ya look at those names bookending the Astros’ closer.  Craig Kimbrel, 4 years, $42 million.  Andrew Miller, 4 years, $36 million. Kenley Jansen, 5 years, $80 million.

What does this mean? WAR gives us a snapshot:

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In terms of overall value, Ken Giles has been the 6th most valuable reliever since his rookie year in 2014.

Now consider that he is years younger than every player who sits on the list ahead of him. Consider that his resume is better at this point of his career than many of those ahead of him. And finally, consider that he is under the Astros’ team control for two more seasons after 2018.

Folks, it is time to stop bellyaching about Ken Giles. Your memory is playing tricks on you. Without hyperbole, you may be watching one of the best, if not the best relief pitcher to ever wear an Astros uniform.

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P.S. Looks like Devo and Harris aren’t just whistlin’ Dixie either.