The Cleveland Indians drafted Brian Stephen Giles out of Granite Hills High School (just east of San Diego) in the 17th round of the 1989 draft. It was a good year to be a 17th rounder, as Giles, Greg Zaun and Mark Grudzielanek all went on to lengthy major league careers. Giles spent three years progressing through the low minors, hitting around .300 with little power at each stop.
In mid-1992 the Indians promoted the 21-year-old outfielder to Double-A, where he blossomed the following year. With Canton-Akron of the Eastern League, Giles hit .327/.409/.452, stealing 18 bases in 30 tries. He also showed advanced plate discipline, with 57 walks while striking out only 43 times in 496 plate appearances.
A promotion to Triple-A in 1994 didn’t slow him down. Doubling his career best home run total with 16, Giles hit .313/.390/.479 and seemed to be knocking on the door to the majors when the strike ended early in 1995. Sent back to Triple-A, he reproduced his previous season’s success with a .310/.395/.501 line including 15 home runs in 486 plate appearances.
At the end of the season Giles got his first taste of the big leagues on Sept. 16, 1995. He went 5-for-9, including his first major league home run down the stretch. Despite having nothing left to prove, Giles was sent back to Triple-A in 1996, now 25 years old. This time he gave them power they couldn’t ignore any longer—he posted a .314/.395/.594 line with 20 homers in just 366 plate appearances before he got the call for good, hitting .355/.434/.612 with five homers in 143 plate appearances.
Why was the big-league club so reluctant to promote the versatile outfielder with an already-refined approach at the plate and good power? Here was the Cleveland lineup in 1994 (which changed little through 1996):
Pos Player Age C Sandy Alomar Jr. 28 1B Paul Sorrento 28 2B Carlos Baerga 25 SS Omar Vizquel 27 3B Jim Thome 23 LF Albert Belle 27 CF Kenny Lofton 27 RF Manny Ramirez 22 DH Eddie Murray 38
By my count, six out of nine regulars are either in the Hall of Fame already (Murray), will be there as soon as they’re eligible (Vizquel, Thome, Ramirez), or have legitimate HOF arguments (Belle and Lofton). To make matters worse for Giles, almost everyone was in the prime of their careers.
This was possibly the worst outfield in baseball history to try to crack. Ramirez, a year younger than Giles, flew past him in the Indians system with a .333/.417/.613 line and 31 homers between Double-A and Triple-A in 1993. From 1994 to 1996, Belle averaged .325/.414/.671, including 42 doubles and 45 home runs. His personality was the only thing between him and a few MVP awards.
And Kenny Lofton, a sabermetric darling, posted a .324/.381/.474 line with an average of 11 homers and 63 stolen bases. Additionally, Lofton made three All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, led the league in stolen bases three times, and even finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1994. Eddie Murray was in the twilight of his career but was still a productive hitter and wasn’t going to be benched for an unproven rookie.
After the 1996 season, Murray and Belle left Cleveland, finally leaving an opening for Giles. The 26-year-old hit .268 with plenty of walks and 17 homers in 451 plate appearances while sharing left field with David Justice and making a handful of starts in center, right and at DH. While the 1997 Indians made it to Game Seven of the World Series, Giles struggled in the postseason despite walking in four of eight World Series plate appearances, finishing with a .222 average.
The next year was almost a repeat of the previous, but with an OBP boost up to .396 and still getting only 430 plate appearances.
About to turn 28 and not getting a full-time shot in the competitive Cleveland lineup, Giles was traded to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates for Ricardo Rincon, straight up. Here’s the 1999 Pirates lineup:
Pos Player Age C Jason Kendall 25 1B Kevin Young 30 2B Warren Morris 25 3B Ed Sprague 31 SS Mike Benjamin 33 LF Al Martin 31 CF Brian Giles 28 RF Brant Brown 28
Not quite Murderer’s Row. Finally given a full season of plate appearances, Giles didn’t disappoint. From 1999 through 2002, Giles averaged .309/.426/.604 with 37 home runs and 10 stolen bases. With his small-market team never winning more than 78 games and other hitters shattering home run records, Giles got little recognition. In these four seasons, he made only two All-Star teams and never finished higher than 13th in MVP voting.
In the midst of another solid season in 2003, Giles was traded to his hometown San Diego Padres in late August before the waiver trading deadline. Contrary to the typical rebuilding process, the last-place Padres sacrificed Oliver Perez and a young hitter named Jason Bay to acquire the veteran slugger from Pittsburgh. Moving into a new stadium the following season, the Padres were hoping to capitalize on an opportunity and quickly jump back into contention.
Unfortunately for Giles, the Padres were about to move into the worst hitters’ park in the majors, and one that is particularly hard on left-handed power hitters. While his road numbers indicate that his power hitting days were in the past, PETCO did its part to suppress Giles’ power. According to the Bill James Handbook 2010, PETCO has a three-year left-handed batter homer park factor of 61, meaning lefty HR output was reduced by roughly 40 percent. Here are Giles’ home/road splits since 2004:
Season Home HR Road HR 2004 10 13 2005 6 9 2006 6 8 2007 1 12 2008 4 8 2009 1 1 Total 28 51 Pre-2004 104 104 Career 132 155
After hitting just as many homers on the road as at home pre-PETCO, Giles hit 80 percent more homers on the road than at PETCO.
Despite his home park, Giles still averaged .285/.386/.446 during five full seasons in San Diego. The Padres made the playoffs twice, but won only one postseason game in two NLDS losses.
At age 38, Giles struggled out of the gate in 2009 and hit the DL for good before the All-Star break. And this year, after attempting a comeback in the Dodgers camp, Giles has announced his retirement from baseball due to chronic pain in his right knee.
It’s too bad, because Giles’ excellent career has been criminally underappreciated. In an era where power and plate discipline were the best skills a hitter could have, Giles was historically great. Only 12 players in history have hit more home runs with a better BB/K ratio than Giles, including Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. The other 10 are Hall of Famers named Williams, Musial, DiMaggio, Gehrig, Ott, Morgan, Berra, Mize, Ruth and Hornsby. While few people would group Giles with 10 inner circle Hall of Famers, it’s clear that his combination of power and patience is in elite company.
Giles was no defensive slouch either. After seeing most of his innings in left field for Cleveland, he spent more time in center field during his seasons in Pittsburgh and later moved to right field when traded to San Diego. While never known to have a good arm, Giles showed above average range even late in his career in right field.
While his injured 2009 was a large dropoff, his nine Plus/Minus Runs Saved in 2006 and 13 in 2008 rated second among league right fielders, according to Bill James Online. Here is the graphic from The Fielding Bible, Volume II based on Giles’ 2008 season:
As you can see, Giles was particularly strong on deep-hit balls, preferring to allow a few singlesso he could track down potential extra base hits. He made several difficult catches towards the spacious right-center field gap (bright red dots) while giving up some shallow singles (bright blue dots) hit in front of him.
While we don’t have advanced defensive metrics dating back to Giles’ early playing days, the fact that he fared above-average in right field in his late 30s suggestions that Giles could at least hold his own in center field during his prime.
In the end, we’re left wondering “what might have been” of Giles’ career. If he had been given a lineup spot rather than wallowing in Triple-A for three seasons, his career totals would be more noteworthy. Spending six years in PETCO Park probably cost him a few dozen home runs as well. As an afterthought on the mid-’90s Indians and later a star for several small-market, last-place Pirates teams during an explosive offensive era, Giles never received the national recognition that a great hitter and plus defensive outfielder deserves.