CLEARWATER, Fla. -- There's only one way to describe the Houston Astros' biggest trade of the winter.
What we had here was, well, the kind of deal you would never expect the Houston Astros to make.
Let's digest this for a moment. A team powered by new-age data traded five players for a relief pitcher (plus a 17-year-old shortstop prospect)? And one of those five players was a guy (Mark Appel) they once took with the No. 1 pick in the draft as recently as 2013?
When this deal was announced last winter, we had this image in our head: hard drives bursting into flames from coast to coast, as number-crunchers everywhere launched into an emergency attempt to reprogram their algorithms for calculating the modern-day value of a late-inning reliever. But meanwhile ...
It turned out this wasn't just a trade that shocked the sabermetrics fans out there. It was a trade that also shocked the relief pitcher in the middle of it -- a rising star named Ken Giles.
"I didn't feel like I was all that valuable," Giles admitted the other day. "I thought I might be like a 2-for-1, two-high-prospects kind of guy. So I feel honored that I was viewed as that valuable to a team."
And well he should, because in its own way, this was a bigger honor than winning the Mariano Rivera award. Or possibly the Nobel Prize in Physics. And if you can hang in there for a minute, we'll get back to why this guy was probably worth every name the Astros dropped into the transactions column to get him.
But before we delve into that, we need to take a journey inside the mindset of the team that traded for him.
Remember when Jeff Luhnow first landed in Houston in 2011, as the general manager of the Astros? He proudly recalls now that one of his missions then was quickly trading away "everybody who was remotely considered a closer."
So out the door, in the first few months of the Luhnow administration, went Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers and Mark Melancon. For a team that was about to lose 310 games over the next three years, they were commodities with way less significance than, say, Orbit, the local mascot.
But even on a more general level, Luhnow was a man who basically viewed "the closer" as a position with about the same level of stability and predictability as "the popcorn vendor." And he wasn't alone, especially among the data-inclined portion of the population.
"I think part of the reason that philosophy exists," he said, "is that we've seen throughout history, over these last 20-30 years, that oftentimes, a reliever will get 20 to 30 saves one year, and have a really low ERA and really help the team. And then the next year, they're out of the closer's role two months into the season. And I think that's because of the small sample size and how hard that role is. So you can't really rely on it as much as you can a position player."
Facts! For more evidence, Luhnow invited us to check out the list of closers from just a couple of years back and look at what has become of them. So we did. It was quite illuminating.
We found 19 relievers who saved at least 30 games in 2013. Exactly one of them (Glen Perkins in Minnesota) is still closing for the same team. Only four others are still the closer for any team. But seven are either hurt or out of baseball entirely. So ... get the point?
"No one can argue the value of having a Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman in the ninth inning," Luhnow said. "It's almost invaluable, because any time you have a lead, you know the game is over and you're going to walk away with a win. It's just, there aren't too many of those guys around."
So this winter, the Astros went on a hunting trip for one of those rare late-inning relievers who could actually be relied upon, particularly when, say, they might find themselves with another four-run lead in the eighth inning of a postseason elimination game.
They were in on Craig Kimbrel. They made a run at Andrew Miller. They kicked tires on both Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger in Tampa Bay. But then, at the winter meetings, they bolted into action when they became convinced that Giles' former team, the Philadelphia Phillies, was serious about moving him.
What made this fellow so attractive wasn't only his triple-digits fastball and Kimbrel-esque slider. It was his age (25). ... And the fact that he was under team control for five more years. ... And his exceptional, under-the-radar track record from his first season and a half in the big leagues. ... And the two months he spent at the end of last year demonstrating, after the Phillies traded Jonathan Papelbon, that he had that late-inning "it" factor the great closers have.
Nevertheless, the price was five young arms, two of whom were Appel and the highly regarded Vincent Velasquez. And these were the Astros. So if this team still wanted to make this trade, let's face it. That was telling us something:
The. Game. Has. Changed. (Again.)
"I think that's true on a couple of different levels," said Houston's ever-thoughtful manager, A.J. Hinch. "One is, the value of the last nine outs -- not just the closer but the last nine outs -- has grown across the game. And some of it has to do with the way the Royals have won championships, the way the Giants have won championships. The intensity of those last nine outs has become more valuable.
"And the other idea that I have is, I think it's hard to measure, analytically or emotionally, what a blown opportunity to win a game means. It's not just about one game, as a lot of measures would tell you. Back when the closer role was less valuable in the eyes of some around the game, it was because they were focused on the value of just one loss. In actuality, when you're on a team and you blow leads, the carryover effect can last far longer than just one game."
So if you get the idea the Astros had thought this through, well, bingo. But that leads to one other, fairly momentous question: OK, they did the deal. But did they get the right guy?
If we'd asked that question just two years ago, when Giles was coming off a frustrating, injury-plagued 2013 season in High-A ball (where he had a 6.31 ERA), you'd have heard a slightly different answer. But that fall, the Phillies had sent him to the Arizona Fall League. Where he rolled up 16 strikeouts in only 10⅓ innings -- and, more important, Giles said, "opened my eyes, that they thought I had a future."
That trip to Arizona became "a turning point," mentally and physically, he said. It motivated him to commit to a rigorous strength-and-conditioning program. He found a delivery that helped him finally throw strikes consistently. Then he came back the next season, dominated both Double-A and Triple-A, committed to throwing his slider repeatedly until he got a feel for it, and voila. He was in the big leagues by June.
It's now 113 big-league appearances later. Ken Giles owns a 1.56 career ERA. That's the second-lowest in history (behind Papelbon's 1.50) among all relievers who worked at least 100 innings over their first two seasons in the big leagues. And only two relief pitchers in the entire sport have a better ERA since Giles' debut: Wade Davis (0.97) and Dellin Betances (1.45). Heard of them.
Over those two seasons, Giles has also launched 14 fastballs clocked at 100 miles per hour or higher, according to PITCHf/x. And only four relievers in baseball can top his 96.8-mph average fastball velocity over the last two seasons. Those four would be Aroldis Chapman, Kelvin Herrera, Trevor Rosenthal and Kimbrel.
So already, this dude has become something of a radar-gun cult hero. But can we let you in on a secret? It's really Ken Giles' slider that has made him the unhittable force he can be at his best.
"The slider," he said, "made my fastball better. It's given two worries to a hitter. They've got to gear up for that fastball. But you don't know which one I'm going to throw because I mix them up so well, to a point where they get out in front of sliders. They just don't know what's coming towards them."
The numbers tell you all you need to know about that confusion. The slash line against that slider: .143/.178/.181. Which computes to a .359 OPS. Those hitters have seen 725 sliders thrown by Giles whooshing their way. They've resulted in 183 swings and misses -- and only 26 hits.
"I think it's hard to measure, analytically or emotionally, what a blown opportunity to win a game means. It's not just about one game, as a lot of measures would tell you. Back when the closer role was less valuable in the eyes of some around the game, it was because they were focused on the value of just one loss. In actuality, when you're on a team and you blow leads, the carryover effect can last far longer than just one game."
A.J. Hinch, Astros manager
"I don't look at the numbers," Giles said. "That's your job. My job is to get three outs."
Interestingly, the way he gets those three outs is incredibly similar to the way Kimbrel does it. In fact, the swing-and-miss rate against Giles' slider (25.2 percent) is almost identical to the whiff rate against Kimbrel's slider (25.5 percent).
What Giles finds cool about it is that, in 2012, after the Phillies shifted him to the bullpen in the low minors, he sat down to watch the MLB All-Star Game with the organization's director of player development, Joe Jordan. Kimbrel stomped in to pitch.
"You know who this guy is?" Jordan asked.
"I've got no clue," Giles admitted.
"That's Craig Kimbrel," Jordan told him. "And this is what we envision you being. Nice, electric fastball and a good slider. You're going to be like this guy."
All right, fast-forward to the 2015-16 offseason. First, Kimbrel was traded to Boston for four players. Then, just a few weeks later, Giles got traded to Houston for five. So are they now closer in stature than most people think?
"I don't know," Giles said, chuckling. "You tell me. I just try to get outs."
Well, he'll be getting all his outs in 2016 for the Astros -- who, incidentally, haven't even officially named him as their closer yet. And they don't care if he gets those outs like Craig Kimbrel or Craig T. Nelson, as long as they get to shake hands like 99 percent of the time he pitches.
After all, the Astros don't just have their October dreams at stake. They have a Value of the Modern Reliever referendum hanging on this deal.