Brian Giles: Still Underappreciated

In a fitting footnote to an unheralded career, Brian Giles didn’t receive a single Hall of Fame vote this year. While the likes of Troy Percival, Aaron Boone, Tom Gordon, and Darin Erstad — all significantly inferior players — combined for nine total votes, 549 ballots were filed without Giles checked off on any of them. Since he didn’t receive the required five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot for another year, Giles joins Carlos Delgado as one-and-done Hall of Fame candidates who at least deserved to stick on the ballot for a few years of rumination.

Of course, Giles, like Delgado, probably isn’t a Hall of Famer. His career started too late and ended too abruptly to merit Cooperstown enshrinement, but in between was a player who posted a career .400 on-base percentage and once smashed 35-plus home runs for four straight seasons. A sort of modern day Ralph Kiner, Giles spent the heart of his career in the relative anonymity of Pittsburgh — when the Pirates were postseason afterthoughts — and also bookended his playing days with two small-market franchises.

Coming up through the Cleveland Indians system, Giles broke out in the minor leagues as a 22-year-old in Double-A, posting a .327 batting average and a .861 OPS in 1993. Despite putting up similarly impressive numbers in Triple-A for nearly three straight years after ’93, Giles was left to overcook in the minors (to a shade of burnt orange) because the Indians had an offense that featured players like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, and Eddie Murray. Finally given regular work in Cleveland by 1997, Giles hit .284/.391/.485 in parts of four seasons with the Indians.

Giles’ career didn’t take off, however, until he was dealt (in a lopsided deal) from Cleveland to Pittsburgh for Moneyball-star Ricardo Rincon in November of 1998. With the Pirates, Giles quickly turned into one of the premier offensive forces in the National League, as he popped 39 home runs and recorded a gaudy .315/.418/.614 slash line in 1999. It wasn’t a fluke either, as Giles cracked 35 or more home runs and exactly 37 doubles in each of the next three seasons, posting a cumulative .308/.428/.601 line from 2000 through 2002.

Just how good was that four-year stretch? By wRC+, Giles was the fifth-best hitter in all of baseball during that four-year run, behind only Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, and Sammy Sosa. He was better than Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Gary Sheffield, Albert Pujols, Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Larry Walker, and, well, I’ll stop there. Four years doesn’t make a Hall of Famer, but at the turn of the century Giles was, without anyone hardly noticing, one of the very best hitters in the game.

Giles was faced with two career-altering events in 2003. First, as Vocal Minority David discussed in his excellent article on Giles from a couple years back, came a knee injury in April that cost Giles 23 games that season (and possibly many more down the road). Then came the late-August trade that sent Giles to San Diego for a hefty package centered around Jason Bay and Oliver Perez. With Petco Park set to open in 2004, Giles was brought to the Padres to be a middle-of-the-order certified Big Bat.

And despite popular opinion to the contrary, as VM David also discussed, he largely delivered. Giles got off to a hot start as a Padre, hitting .298/.414/.490 in 29 games down the stretch in 2003. In his first full season in San Diego, 2004, Giles posted his lowest OPS (.849) since his rookie campaign in 1997. The 23 home runs he hit that year weren’t bad, but that total was a far cry from the 38 he pounded just two years earlier in Pittsburgh. Of course, Giles was 33 years old at that point, and he had transferred his game from a slightly hitter-friendly venue in Pittsburgh to surprisingly pitching-friendly Petco. The park-adjusted numbers, like his 127 wRC+, were more than adequate.

In 2005, Giles delivered the preeminent late-career Giles season, hitting .301/.423/.483 while powering just 15 home runs but adding 46 doubles and triples. Remarkably, in the toughest hitting environment in the majors, Giles led the league in walks (119) while striking out just 64 times. His 147 wRC+ ranked 11th-best in all of baseball in 2005, sandwiched between Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Teixeira. His ’05 fWAR? 10th among position players (5.7). His walk-to-strikeout ratio? Second at 1.86, and first among mortals (Bonds was first).

Both 2006 and 2007 were relative disappointments for Giles, as his batting average slipped to .267 during those two years. Combined with gradually lowering power and walk numbers, suddenly that version of Giles was merely a slightly above average hitter. The knee issues we mentioned earlier also crept back into focus in ’07, as he missed 34 games that season with a knee contusion and underwent surgery after the season.

Giles rebounded in a big way in 2008, playing in 147 games while putting up an .854 OPS and a 136 wRC+. The resurgence was short-lived, however, as Giles’ last major league season in 2009 would be a miserable one. Even a solid walk rate couldn’t make up for a sub-Mendoza line batting average and further diminishing power numbers, as Giles hit .191/.277/.271 through 61 games. Then he re-injured his right knee in June and eventually called it a career.

The San Diego portion of Giles’ career was an interesting one. He clearly wasn’t the player he was with Pittsburgh, but that should have been expected. Giles spent his age-28 through 32 seasons with the Pirates, while he was with the Padres for his mid-to-late thirties decline phase. And as we mentioned earlier, the extreme pitcher-friendliness of Petco Park didn’t do him any favors. Even with those factors considered, Giles campaigns fill Padres leaderboards. Giles has posted the 15th (147), 28th (138), and 52nd-best (128) single-season OPS+ marks in Padres history. And his .423 on-base percentage in 2005 is easily the top figure in the Petco era, topped only by Tony Gwynn (twice) in all of Padres history. All told, Giles racked up 16.7 rWAR during his four best years with the Padres.

Giles might not look like a Hall of Famer on the surface — and, again, he probably isn’t — but it might surprise you how well his numbers stack up. If you look at Jay Jaffe’s JAWS score, which is basically a combination of career value and peak value, Giles ranks 28th all-time among right fielders, ahead of Hall of Famers like Sam Rice, Harry Hooper, Kiki Cuyler, and Chuck Klein. None of those names are inner-circle Hall members, but they do serve to highlight just how stringent we’ve become with today’s high Hall standards. And Giles’ peak WAR — his total WAR over his top seven seasons — isn’t discernibly lower than Sam Crawford‘s, or Dave Winfield‘s, or Gary Sheffield’s, or even Tony Gwynn‘s.

It’s important to note that Giles, like any slugger of the era, isn’t free and clear of the steroid question, especially when the bulk of his home run production came during the height of the so-called steroid era. More discouraging than unsubstantiated PED talk is Giles’ drawn out legal battle with a former girlfriend, part of which centered around domestic abuse.

Off-field issues aside, for a player who didn’t truly get started until his late-twenties and suffered from nagging knee issues later on, Giles managed to carve out a marvelous career. A well-rounded player who displayed the rare combination of power, patience, and contact ability at the dish, Giles’ game wasn’t limited to his bat. While his defense was never great, for the most part, he put up decent fielding numbers in the outfield. And despite lackluster stolen base totals, his base running was a couple of notches above average, another aspect of his game that went largely unnoticed.

Arguing about down-ballot Hall of Fame candidates probably isn’t the biggest concern surrounding Cooperstown these days. As writers have struggled in both electing the right candidates and dealing with steroid era stars, even with a deserving, uncharacteristically large 2015 class of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio, the current ballot remains crowded — at least 12 additional players who didn’t make the Hall this year have legitimate cases for enshrinement.

The rules haven’t helped in sorting out the mess either, as the electors can only vote for a maximum of 10 players each year (no wonder why Giles didn’t get any support). Further, secret ballots — Hall voters aren’t required to make their ballots public, though many do — are significantly worse than public ones. And we won’t even get started on who — exactly — make up the group of writers that do the voting.

In the end, perhaps it’s fitting that Jay Jaffe’s Hall of Fame write-up on Giles received only three comments, each of which mocked Jaffe for even writing the article. For whatever reason, Giles’ style didn’t resonate with the mainstream fan. Based on how his career unfolded, it would have felt oddly out-of-character had he received any votes for the Hall of Fame.

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  • Pat

    “Since he didn’t receive the required five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot for another year, Giles joins Carlos Delgado as one-and-done Hall of Fame candidates who at least deserved to stick on the ballot for a few years of rumination.”

    So I guess this is the opposite stance to the folks who like to say, “I don’t know why he wasn’t voted in years ago, his stats haven’t changed.” I don’t think there’s really any need to ruminate on either of these players, given the current ballot situation. Honestly, Delgado was probably only the third best bat-only 1B on the ballot (after McGwire certainly, and likely behind McGriff as well), and once you look at him within his era, he might not be better than the 10th best 1B of his time. Bagwell, Thomas, Thome, Pujols, McGwire, Palmeiro and Edgar (if you’re down with including DH in the 1B comp pool) are all clearly superior. Clark, Helton, and Olerud all have solid cases as being better overall once you start looking at defense (heck so do Teixeira and A-Gon). Ortiz, Giambi, and McGriff all have better WAA totals. I just don’t see any need to consider Delgado further than that.
    Giles had a HOF peak, IMO, but as you noted he doesn’t have the career length usually required, and his peak doesn’t stand out so much that it overcomes this lack. It’s unfortunate for him he couldn’t be given some recognition, but when you can’t even fit all qualified HOF players on the ballot without exceeding the 10 player limit, someone has to go, and I’m fine with it being Giles, and definitely have no issue with it being Delgado.

    • Dustin

      That’s fair enough, Pat. I guess I just think when I guy gets 50-plus career WAR and has a really solid peak, he deserves a couple of years of down-ballot Hall of Fame discussion, maybe just as a sort of career respect sort of thing.

      But I agree, the current state of the ballot makes both Giles and Delgado afterthoughts. That isn’t their fault, though, and if logical guys like Bonds, Clemens, Raines, etc. were already elected, there’d be room for some Giles votes, let alone more deserving players like Edgar Martinez (who is stuck at 27 percent).

      • Pat

        A reasonable perspective for a guy like Giles, still when looking at it from a WAR based perspective he slots in with Elmer Flick, Willie Keeler, Enos Slaughter, Sam Rice, Harry Hooper, and Kiki Cuyler, HOF all, but not exactly modern corner OF selections, using JAWS ranking for a shorthand. Now he may stand out from those guys somewhat if we look a bit more granularly, but there is one obvious area where he stands out from them without even looking closely, playing time. Giles simply doesn’t have enough career to go with his peak. The only one of those guys he has more PA’s than is Flick, a bizarre Veteran’s Committee selection. He is clearly not up to the more modern stnadards for RF inductees such as Winfield, Gwynn, and Jackson. He’s clearly behind Sheffield, even accounting for defense, as well as the upcoming Guerrero, Abreu, and Suzuki.
        I think what you’re describing is not an issue with how Giles was treated, but how the voters have failed to deal with the flood of qualified players. It’s a systemic issue, not a Giles issue.

      • Dustin

        Yeah, I don’t think we’re too far apart.

        If the ballot weren’t as messy as it currently is, Giles would at least have a year or two to marinate at the bottom of the ballot — that’s all I’m asking*. Of course, like I mentioned in the article, Giles not receiving any HoF votes is a fitting way to end a sort of unsung career.

        *Not that I really thinks it’s a big deal, either way.

      • Pat

        “Of course, like I mentioned in the article, Giles not receiving any HoF votes is a fitting way to end a sort of unsung career.”
        Yes, on this we can agree. 🙂

  • randplaty

    giles is one of my favorite padres too.