New Mariner Giles has strong 'mental game'

Veteran closer recovering from Tommy John, formally introduced Friday

February 20th, 2021

might be most remembered mainstream for punching himself in the face in frustration after blowing a save in 2018 while he was the Astros’ closer. He finds himself explaining the backstory to just about every new person he encounters in baseball, from teammates to coaches, media and fans, because, well, it’s hard not to ask.

Such was the case on Friday, when Giles was introduced as the newest Mariners reliever, having signed a two-year deal worth $7 million that could turn into a three-year, $19 million deal if he reaches all his incentives. Giles is recovering from Tommy John surgery in October and will not pitch in 2021. To make room on the 40-man roster for Giles -- who will soon be transferred to the 60-day injured list -- the club designated right-hander Robert Dugger for assignment.

But back to Giles' self-fisticuffs: The 30-year-old righty outlined how that moment was one of many turning points that impacted his mental health and pushed him in a more positive direction.

“I laugh at myself,” Giles said from Peoria, Ariz., after the Mariners completed Day 3 of Spring Training. “I mean, everyone makes jokes about it. I make jokes about it myself. I always tell everyone, ‘Maybe I just have to just get the negative energy out of myself.’ I don't know. That's how my body responded. That's how low I was in my mental game.”

Giles also said he needed a change of scenery. Even while soaring through the Phillies’ farm system and becoming a standout closer early in his career, then helping Houston win the 2017 World Series title as the club’s closer, Giles was a self-professed “lone wolf.” His low point came when he was sent to Triple-A two months after his infamous punch. Three weeks later, he was traded to the Blue Jays, where he “came out of his shell.”

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Around that time, with the help of his agent, Giles hired a professional mental health coach with whom he visits to this day.

“For me, it was just [trying] to make things a little bit better every day for myself and not to be so hard on myself,” Giles said. “At the end of the day, it's baseball. It's not going to be forever. But you know what? I want to enjoy it. Like I said before, I'd rather enjoy my time playing the game and be competitive. ... I just want to enjoy myself and play the game the right way.”

Giles still wields the same intensity from that day in Houston, as is evidenced by the 2019 season, during which he regained his status as one of the game’s best closers. That year, he racked up 23 saves and 83 strikeouts, and posted a 1.87 ERA and 244 ERA+ over 53 innings in 53 games. That is apex Giles, the one the Mariners believe can be their closer if they emerge from their multiyear overhaul and take a step toward contention in ’22.

Giles earned a $500,000 signing bonus and will earn $1 million in salary this season, according to MLB Network insider Jon Heyman. He’ll earn $5 million in 2022, when he should be ready by Opening Day, and Seattle holds a club option for ’23 worth $9.5 million against a $500,000 buyout. The deal fits the Mariners’ timeline, given that ’21 will be a year of prospect graduation to the Majors and continued player development, with “contending for a postseason spot” as a successful goal, general manager Jerry Dipoto has said.

By those words and actions, 2022 would be a more targeted goal for a significant step forward. Having an elite closer in place would check off one of the many boxes for a postseason-hopeful team, and Giles’ deal is particularly intriguing. His contract is well below market value for top-end closers -- Liam Hendriks signed with the White Sox this offseason for $18 million per year, for example -- but Giles also carries some risk after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He's one of four of the Mariners' offseason signings to have had the procedure, joining fellow relievers Rafael Montero, Keynan Middleton and Kendall Graveman.

“I don't want it to down-sell or diminish the percentage chance that it doesn't work out, because there is a chance that it doesn't work out,” Dipoto said, noting that team doctors estimate a 93 percent recovery rate in Tommy John surgeries across the game today. “But in Ken's case, we feel very certain. Pitchers tend to bounce back from this and when they do come back, they come back at full strength.”

Giles will spend the entire year in Peoria -- after all, it’s home. The righty lives less than 15 minutes from the Mariners’ Spring Training complex with his wife and two children.

Nearly five months removed from his Oct. 1 surgery, Giles will pick up a baseball for the first time post-procedure during the second week of March. Recovery time is typically 12-15 months, which would put him in line to be at full strength at this time next year. Mariners manager Scott Servais reiterated Friday that Giles will not pitch in a game this season, and Giles understands that his contributions will be a byproduct of patience.

“I take a lot of pride and joy in my mental side of the game. I think because I went through that, I was able to reconcile through the surgery, knowing that I am a stronger person," Giles said. "But mentally, I can probably get through anything, honestly.”