Blue Jays closer Ken Giles ready to get back to his old self

As he spent the last month-and-half slowly recovering from a right forearm strain, Ken Giles’ motto was “first one here, first one done.” He’d arrive at the ballpark early and work his way through whichever rehab tasks were on his checklist that day. By the time his Toronto Blue Jays teammates arrived prior to that night’s game, Giles’ work day was done. Which gave him an opportunity to simply hang out and chat, sharing whatever knowledge his younger teammates were interested in gleaning.

“I was always free and I was always around and I was always here until the end of the game. It was always long days for me here at the ballpark,” Giles said. “I felt like just putting myself around the team and making myself available as much as possible was a valuable asset to anybody who needed that information.”

It was all he could do. Giles was meant to be an anchor at the back of Toronto’s bullpen in this shortened season, but he left his second outing of the year biting his glove as his right arm hung limp at his side. He’d been trying to compete through a flexor mass strain, but each pitch was making matters worse. He needed an extended break to let the injury heal.

So, instead of contributing to the 2020 Blue Jays by closing games, he contributed by playing mentor. He helped converted starters Anthony Kay and Thomas Hatch get accustomed to bullpen routines, and gave them advice on how to manage recovery between starts. He talked mental approach with Jordan Romano, who adopted Giles’ trademark pre-pitch squat. He tried to be the best teammate he could.

After a 2018 summer that saw him traded in a deadline deal to Toronto, and a 2019 summer in which he was the constant subject of transactional speculation and very nearly moved again, the summer of 2020 has been better for Giles than you might expect considering he’s barely played the game.

“I've felt relaxed throughout this season — because of how the year started and knowing the type of guys we had. And once we started back up, the close bond that we started to have going through what we did,” Giles said. “I didn’t think about being traded. Because I thought something special was going to happen.

“I’ve been on the sideline for most of the year — but it's been fun to watch. I’ve been on my toes every game. I've been screaming and hollering in the locker room. I'm excited every day for them to play and hit home runs and have come-back wins.”

Now, Giles is ready to be a part of all that himself. He just has to get his arm back to where it was last season when he was one of baseball’s most effective relievers. And he’s up against the calendar to do so as the Blue Jays stare down a possible postseason series in less than three weeks.

Of course, Giles battled arm issues in 2019 as well, when joint inflammation in his elbow began impacting his recovery between outings and forced him to the injured list for 10 days. But this time the problem was muscular, and it took longer for the inflammation to subside. The good news was the Blue Jays had the opportunity to compare current imaging of Giles’ elbow with the MRI taken last season, which provided reassurance that nothing worse was going on.

“Everything was clean,” Giles said. “I just had to take it slow. I just have to not be too hard on myself. It’s been a weird year — and a lot of guys have had weird years. It’s no different for me. It’s just unfortunate that it happened.”

He began long toss and bullpens in the final weeks of August, but didn’t start feeling like himself again until he began throwing live batting practice to Blue Jays teammates earlier this month. Giles threw three of those sessions, progressively dialling up the intensity with each outing. But nothing replicates the speed and intensity of a game situation.

That opportunity finally came Saturday night in a blowout against the New York Mets, as Giles took the mound in a game for the first time in nearly seven weeks. The results were mixed. Wilson Ramos welcomed him back to big-league play rudely, clobbering the first pitch Giles threw — a 94 m.p.h. fastball — 430-feet over the centre field wall. Giles’ next pitch, another fastball, missed the zone by a foot.

But he settled in from there, getting Brandon Nimmo to swing through an elevated fastball for a strikeout and Jake Marisnick to chase a slider for another. Two groundballs later, he was out of the inning.

Of course, the results were always going to be secondary, and not only because Giles was pitching with his team facing a two-touchdown deficit. There are no rehab assignments this season. No opportunities for players to regain their sea legs anywhere but in a game that counts. For Giles, Friday’s outing was more about how he felt after than during.

“I just wanted to see how my body reacted after a game speed situation. I feel good right now. I’m sore in the right places,” he said. “Hopefully from here on I just keep getting stronger and I can be back to my normal self like I was last year.”

His normal self would be a guy who averages anywhere from 96-98 m.p.h. with his fastball, as opposed to the 94-95 m.p.h. he was sitting at Friday. It would also be a guy whose slider is in the 86-87 m.p.h. range rather than the 84-85 m.p.h. breaking ball Giles featured against the Mets.

It’s not unusual for pitchers to gradually build velocity over their first few outings after an extended absence from competition. And it’s possible Giles is still re-gaining the confidence and trust in his arm to truly let it go after a scary injury. Either way, all eyes will be on the velocity readings the next few times Giles pitches, as he continues to round into form.

“He looked really good to me,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “The arm strength is there. I know the more he pitches, the higher his (velocity) will go up.”

The tests will only continue for Giles going forward. The club is keeping him out of high leverage spots for the time being, but everyone’s goal is to get Giles back into the closer’s role he’s filled for this team since shortly after he was acquired from the Houston Astros in 2018. He’ll also need to test his effectiveness pitching on back-to-back days — something he hasn’t done in 14 months.

Per FanGraphs, there is a higher than 90 per cent likelihood that the Blue Jays will participate in the postseason. And in the postseason, a team needs to be able to call upon its best relievers on consecutive days. Same goes for extended outings. While Giles will no doubt be limited to one-inning stints for the time being, it’s not hard to envision a playoff situation in which the Blue Jays would want to ask him to record more than three outs.

What makes things tricky is the Blue Jays have only 15 games remaining. And the club’s first playoff game could be only two-and-a-half weeks away. A delicate balance must be struck between preparing Giles for the demands of postseason baseball while not pushing him too hard, too soon. He may not get the opportunity to test his effectiveness in an extended outing or when pitching in a back-to-back until the final days of the season.

“The guys have done a great job of putting us in a really good spot right now. So, we have the cushion for me to progress myself,” Giles said. “I shouldn’t be too far off being pretty confident within the high leverage situations. And once the postseason comes, the goal is for me to be fully ready to go, hitting my stride. That’s what I'm looking forward to right now.”

And he has everything to pitch for. Assuming a surprise extension doesn’t materialize in the next two months, Giles will become a free agent this winter and enter an extremely uncertain market. Relievers had already been devalued in recent off-seasons, as front offices became less and less willing to commit significant term and dollars to one of the game’s most volatile position groups. And heading into this winter, following a season in which no team pulled gate revenue, it’s unclear whether many organizations will be keen to add substantial payroll at all.

On the other hand, relievers have never been more valuable to clubs than they are now. Managers are increasingly reticent to let starters get too deep into games, fearing the statistically-proven damage a third trip through the order often brings. A deep, versatile bullpen is practically a necessity for contending clubs, particularly come the stretch run and playoffs, when traditional starters are carrying the fatigue from a season’s worth of innings and matchup exploitation takes on added importance.

And when Giles is at his best, he’s among the best. In 2019, he pitched to a top-five ERA (1.87) and FIP (2.27) among MLB relievers. He put up 99th percentile strikeout and whiff rates, while his expected batting average (.184), slugging percentage (.320) and weighted on-base average (.247) — all based on the quality of contact he allowed — were within the top five per cent of MLB pitchers. If he were entering free agency from that platform, he’d be positioned to earn a considerable contract.

So, who knows how Giles will be valued this offseason? There’s no shortage of questions still to be answered. All Giles can do right now is try to eliminate one of them — his health. And maybe just pitch his team deep into the postseason while he’s at it.

"It doesn’t benefit me looking too far into the future. Does it suck that [the injury] happened? Absolutely. Because I wanted to repeat what I did last year — short season or not,” Giles said. “But, overall, I can't dwindle myself down to the ground because I can't feel sorry for myself. If I go out there and compete the best I can and show that I'm healthy, I think that all the questions will be answered."

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