March 21, 2010
It's been a rough month for childhood favorites of mine, as not only Nomar Garciaparra retired, but Brian Giles, easily the player I was most irrationally obsessed with during the early part of the decade, also called it a career. How many of you have a cat named Brian Giles at your parents' house? Didn't think so. Giles had a very underrated career, one that fell from the spotlight it almost reached upon being traded to San Diego and the park that crushes hitters' dreams. He won't have the counting stats for a Hall of Fame career, but Giles had quite the career.
Brian Stephen Giles was drafted out of high school in El Cajon, California, by the Cleveland Indians in 1989. The 17th-round pick spent a considerable amount of time in the minors, starting at Burlington in the Rookie League at age 18, and not showing a whole lot from a statistical point of view until his first full stint at Double-A in 1993. That's not to say he was bad in the minors. He didn't show much power in low minors, but did give off signs that he was a patient hitter. During the '93 season at Canton-Akron, Giles hit .327/.409/.452, still not a lot of power, but an otherwise good-looking season for a 22-year-old. His Isolated Power numbers would creep up with a promotion to Triple-A, where he would be stuck for three years despite promising performances. In 1994, Giles hit .313/.390.479; in '95, he had a 310/.395/.501 line; he then hit .314/.395/.594 in 1996. That last burst of power was enough to convince the Indians to keep him around at the major-league level after being blocked by such stars as Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, and Manny Ramirez.
It didn't hurt that, once in the majors, Giles had no troubles acclimating himself to the environment: in over 143 plate appearances Giles put together a line of .355/.434/.612 in 1996. He was given a more full-time position in 1997, when the Indians finished first in the American League Central despite an 86-75 record and reached the World Series, only to lose to the Marlins. Giles recorded a .268/.368/.459 showing with a TAv of .284. While he struggled in the ALDS against the Yankees and the ALCS against the Orioles, he hit .500/.750/.750 over eight plate appearances in the World Series.
The 1998 season was largely the same for Giles as he had a .287 TAv by way of a .269/.396/.460 line. Giles appeared in just 112 games, splitting time in left field with Mark Whiten, Geronimo Berroa, Shawon Dunston, and David Justice. The Indians then dealt Giles to thePirates that winter for left-handed reliever Ricardo Rincon, which would create even more chaos for Cleveland in left in 1999, with Wil Cordero, Justice, Jacob Cruz, and Richie Sexson taking turns manning the position along with a smattering of Jolbert Cabrera, Alex Ramirez, Whiten, and Dave Roberts.
You can't fault the Indians completely for moving him. He just came off of an age-27 season where they were pretty sure they knew who he was, given he had two comparable campaigns in a row. They also had a lot of names on the roster they felt could fill the role, and thought that by trading Giles, they could fill a hole elsewhere. That's where Rincon comes in, and also where the trade becomes laughable, not just in retrospect, but even at the time.
Sure, the data used at the time is a lot fuzzier than today's, but Rincon lucked his way into a sub-3.00 ERA (his RA was a splendid 4.29, so much for stranding runners). All told, Rincon accumulated 3.6 WARP in his career with Cleveland, while Giles had 3.4 just the year prior. For the record, Rincon's 1998 WARP was 0.7. Chances are good Cleveland could have pulled a Rincon from their own organization and kept Giles for what came next.
What did come next must have elicited groans from Cleveland fans, because Giles erupted. He hit .315/.418/.614 in his first season with the Pirates. Cleveland still managed to get great production out of left (.294/.377/.502) but Rincon posted an ERA (and RA) of 4.43 while throwing just 44
Giles was a monster with the Bucs, hitting .309/.426/.604 from 1999-2002. He had 149 homers, 144 doubles, and struck out just 290 times against 434 walks. He had put himself in the same breath with many Pirates' great as his 123 RBI in 2000 were eight shy of Paul Waner's club record, and his 74 homers in two seasons were the most since Willie Stargell hit 77 in 1972 and 1973. His 114 walks in 2000 were the most since Barry Bonds had 127 in his final year with the club in 1992. He was the third player in club history with back-to-back 100-run, 100-walk, 100-RBI campaigns, along with Bonds and Ralph Kiner. Unsurprisingly, he was Pirates player of the year all four of those years.
He made the National League All-Star team in 2000 and 2001, somehow missing in his other two full years with the Pirates and never finishing higher than 13th in the MVP vote. Bonds was easily the best player in the league during this stretch, but Giles was right behind him and one other (be it Jeff Kent or Sammy Sosa, or whoever, depending on the season) in stat after stat, and had little recognition for it outside of Pittsburgh.
There were two teams who had an idea of his worth though—the Pirates, of course, and the San Diego Padres. Midway through the 2003 season, with Giles hitting .299/.430/.521, he was dealt to the Padres in exchange for Jason Bay (a player very similar to Giles in many ways statistically), and Oliver Perez, who was a project pitcher with fantastic stuff. Bay would also become an All-Star, and he signed a four-year, $66-million contract with the New York Mets over the winter. Perez would show flashes of brilliance between giving his managers Homer Simpsonesque fits of hair-tearing rage. Perez would also be rewarded by the Mets with a three-year, $36-million contract, though whether he deserved it can be debated.
The Padres, seeing Bay develop slowly, wanted someone who was already a star to help their lineup. Bay broke out immediately with the Pirates. Giles hit well enough with San Diego the rest of the year (.298/.414/.490) but not at the level you would expect given his resume. Things would get worse from there, thanks to Petco Park. From 2004-08, Giles hit a collective .285/.386/.446 as a Padre. That's unimpressive at first glance given Giles time with Pittsburgh, but taking a deeper look, you see that he hit .298/.397/.478 on the road, and .271/.375/.411 at Petco. His TAvs from those years—which provide an adjusted view of his offensive value, in spite of Petco's best efforts to destroy scoring—.299, .330, .283, .283, and .319. Giles even managed his lone top 10 MVP finish in 2005, despite just 15 homers. He did have a league-leading 119 walks along with 38 doubles and eight triples and a batting average over .300 despite playing his home games in the game's grand canyon.
After a short-lived attempt at catching on with the Dodgers in spring training, Giles officially announced his retirement earlier this month. This is sad to me for a few reasons, chiefly that my favorite player is no longer in the league. Second is the legacy that many will remember Giles by, as he has had legal battles with a former girlfriend, as he was charged with beating her while she was pregnant. While the legal process is still playing out, it's disconcerting that this is something he could be remembered for, rather than an excellent career. No one should ever ask professional athletes to be role models, but it's much tougher to care for a guy whose job it is to hit a ball a really long way when things like this happen. I'm very vocal about how these kinds of accusations are swept under the rug immediately—go ahead and hit your wife, Mr. Sports Figure, just don't take any HGH while you're doing it—so I wanted to make sure, before anyone mentions it in the comments, that I make it clear that this is something that bothers me.
To get back to baseball, Giles had an excellent career with the Pirates and even the Padres, and it's a shame it had to end as soon as it did. If he had been able to produce for a few more years, he would have had enough ammo to at least get us stat geeks riled up about his Hall of Fame chances, at least before he failed to gain five percent of the vote and fell off the ballot after one year. Sadly, knee problems brought his career to an end, a career that wound up being very good but not quite great.