In his past nine innings pitched, Ken Giles has struck out 23 batters.
On Sunday, he struck out six in 1 2/3 innings. After loading the bases with nobody out in his second partial inning of work, he struck out the next three batters swinging, giving him four Ks in the inning. He had 10 swinging strikes in a single relief appearance. The entire Twins starting rotation, in 111 total starts, has collected more than 10 swinging strikes only 21 times this year. And, on top of the 10, Giles had two more foul tips that were held onto by the catcher—essentially, 12 swinging strikes. This is what they look like, if you’re curious; they're all fun, and 10 are basically identical to each other:
In those nine innings, he has faced 38 batters and struck out 60 percent of them. Twenty of the 23 were swinging. A quarter of his pitches have been swinging strikes. He has more strikeouts in those nine innings than Aaron Cook had in 18 starts back in 2012.
So far as I can tell, no reporters asked Giles after the game about his incredible run. Partly this was because, after the game, Giles probably wasn’t all that happy with himself. He’d allowed two inherited runners to score and (including the batter who reached on a strikeout) five total runners to reach base. He blew a save, and after the Astros managed a ninth-inning comeback to tie the game they ended up losing, anyway. (He has officially given up no runs in those nine innings, with six hits and three walks allowed.) But partly it’s because we don’t really have a way to talk about exceptional reliever performances.
If this were a starter who had struck out 23 batters in nine innings—well, okay, let’s put that hypothetical aside, because that would really be something unimaginable. (Not only are strikeouts obviously more attainable during a short stint, but Giles has thrown more than 150 pitches in his nine innings.) But we generally know what a jaw-dropping performance looks like for a starter, and we know how to have fun with them—the perfect game, or the near-perfect game, or the 20-K game, or even the 17-K game. But the most extraordinary pitching performances these days are often relief performances. These extraordinary performances are awfully difficult to recognize:
1. They’re over as soon as they can be identified—there’s no “11 Ks through five innings!” alarm system on Twitter for when a reliever is extremely dealing. You most likely wouldn't notice a potential immaculate innings—striking out the side on nine pitches—until at least after pitch seven.
2. There are no benchmarks for what makes one great. Over at Effectively Wild, we have talked about a unit of single-outing dominance called Wagners, in which the reliever pitches exactly one inning and strikes all three batters out. But, of course, a Wagner isn’t in any way historic by itself—Wagner threw three dozen of them; Luke Hochevar has two this year. It’s a measure that adds up over time and only generally points toward greatness, as multi-homer games or shutouts would.
3. To the extent reliever performances get unequivocally awesome, it occurs only over time; but, excepting full-season or full-career stat lines, we don’t really have the infrastructure to easily put performances like Giles’ in context. While an active Twitterer is aware anytime a starter enters the seventh inning with a perfect game going, you probably can’t tell me, right now, off the top of your head, how many relievers are at least 18 batters into a hidden perfect game at the moment. Nor can I. And how many are normal? Is one at any given moment normal? Who knows! As it regards Giles, I don’t know how rare 23 Ks over nine innings is. If I had to guess, I’d say… it’s a record? If it is, it’s such a buried record that nobody has bothered to ask him about it.
“Way to officially measure relief dominance” isn’t the sport’s most pressing need, of course. But tracking and rooting for (or against) these sorts of individual benchmarks, achievements, records, Fun Facts, etc. are a huge part of the fun of watching baseball. There are too many games, and too many innings without World Series implications, for the league’s competitive thread to sustain our many daily hours of viewing. That’s what records are for. That’s what hitting streaks are for. That’s what “triple-shy-of-the-cycle” At-Bat notifications are for. That’s why team press shops put out packets that list the milestones players are chasing, the streaks that they’re trying to keep alive, and the Fun Facts that we might see get a little bit more fun.
Right now, 30 percent of the league is relief pitchers, and some of those relief pitchers are also, arguably, the most exciting players in the game today—at least as far as the experience of actually watching them do their jobs goes. Yet those relief pitchers are largely excluded from the language of records, streaks and personal aspiration. Hitters want to hit for the cycle, bat .300, win the MVP award; starters want to throw a no-hitter, win 20 games and take home the Cy Young. Relievers want to get their guy, be named the closer, and not lose the closer's job.
I suppose as the editor of a website that provides statistics about major-league baseball, I could quit my whining and do something about this, and maybe I will. But it’s not a technical challenge so much as a cultural one: Do we want this, and what do we want? Is there a standard of exceptional reliever performance that merits heralding whenever it’s reached? Is there a set of parameters for reliever dominance that you would switch games to see, the way you would to see the eighth inning of a no-hitter or possible 20-K start? Can we reach agreement on any of these things?
Or, because pitchers like Ken Giles only come into games that are high-leverage and exciting on their own, is this totally unnecessary? Does Ken Giles not need to unlock any achievement badges to make his appearances exciting? Do the samples of relief work make it inherently unfun to celebrate their brief and best stretches? Is relieving too "easy" to be awed by?
I’m curious, so I’m asking you. Also, I had a feeling you might not have seen that Ken Giles has 23 strikeouts in his last nine innings, so I’m telling you. Are you excited?
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now