Braves pitcher Ken Giles grew after battles with depression and injuries

Now, Giles is fighting to pitch in the majors again

NORTH PORT, Fla. — Ken Giles began experiencing depression in 2018.

“Everything started spiraling for me,” Giles said, “and I had literally a mental breakdown.”

This mental breakdown – when all of the pressure and stress from his own expectations finally erupted – happened in public view and on television: In May 2018, Giles allowed a go-ahead, three-run home run in the ninth inning versus the Yankees. As Giles walked off the mound after his manager pulled him, he became emotional and punched himself in the face.

The moment, as difficult and raw as it was for Giles, went viral. Everyone saw his lowest point.

“I was just trying to dig myself out of the hole,” said Giles, who is in spring training with the Braves. “I’m one of those guys that I am so hard on myself. I expect perfection, I expect myself to ride this wave to greatness because, at the end of the day, that’s what I believe I can do. I have high standards for myself, and if I don’t meet those standards – even if it’s (that) I don’t meet the ultimate goal, but if I don’t get to the ultimate goal, I tear myself down because, at the end of the day, I felt like a failure. That’s how I have to take a step back like, ‘The ultimate goal is the ultimate goal for a reason.’ You have to take baby steps to get there, and keep grinding.”

This story of Giles’ breakdown begins in the 2017 postseason, when he struggled on the mound. He allowed 10 earned runs over 7-2/3 innings. Houston won the World Series, and Giles earned a ring, but he was hard on himself for his performance. He was a champion, but he took that small piece of his season – the playoff stumbles – and it overshadowed all he accomplished that season, like posting a 2.30 ERA and 34 saves as a dominant closer.

“I can laugh at (the breakdown) now because I can take a punch,” Giles said. “No one’s gonna be able to punch me and take me down because I can take a punch.”

Giles laughed after saying this. He can joke about it now. But then? His mental battle felt crippling at one point.

He put so much pressure on himself at the start of the 2018 season. He wanted redemption. He did everything he could to make up for that one bad stretch – a run that, again, ended with the ultimate prize.

“And it just kind of spiraled because I wanted to be great, I wanted to be who I knew could be,” Giles said. “But I just took it too far, to a point where it’s like, you break yourself down, you start cutting your legs off and you can’t crawl anymore.”

To get to Braves camp, Giles had to overcome mental and physical hurdles. He battled depression and worked to manage it. He sustained two unfortunate injuries that derailed his major-league career, but re-taught himself how to pitch after them.

The 33-year-old Ken Giles who is a non-roster invitee in Braves spring training is a Ken Giles with experience and perspective, a Ken Giles who gives himself a bit of grace. He might always be a perfectionist because he loves his craft – as all of us do – but he’s learned how to handle the cruel nature of baseball.

‘Your back is always against the wall’

In 2019, Giles began working on the mental game. He talked to Sean-Kelley Quinn, a sports psychologist. The two still connect here and there. Giles also leaned on his wife, Estela – a former professional softball player who gets it – and his three kids: Brody, Brayden and Jasmine. He called them his “safety net.”

“This game comes with a lot of stress,” Giles said. “Just like in the real world, you don’t perform, you don’t have a job anymore. It’s one of those (things) where your back is always against the wall.”

Especially in his case. He underwent Tommy John surgery Sept. 30, 2020. In 2022, he missed three months because of a right middle finger sprain that occurred as he was playing catch during spring training. He was throwing 96-97 mph before that. Since the start of 2020, Giles, once an elite closer, has pitched only eight innings in the majors.

The past couple of years, Giles said, were a grind. He wondered if he’d ever pitch in the big leagues again. “I mean, everyone goes into that dark place,” Giles said. All along, Giles sought to regain his true form.

At one point, he reached a point mentally where he wanted it so badly that he fell into bad habits. His mechanics were out of whack. He was so adamant about throwing 98-99 mph again, but instead needed to focus on finding himself. He was lost after the injuries, and he needed a foundation.

Giles had a turning point when this past offseason began. “Enough is enough,” he told himself. He took a week off from throwing after last season, when he played in the Dodgers system, and then started throwing. “Just trying to find myself, in general, was really tough,” Giles said.

“I understand I’m getting older,” Giles said. “I still believe I have more in the tank when it comes to velocity. But at the end of the day, I am older, I am smarter, I’m gonna have to learn to pitch a little bit. So if it has to be just a little modification of who I am, so be it.”

Over the offseason, Giles played catch into a net for three days of the week as he sought to train his arm for a full season. He had to re-teach his body the different movements that made him successful. And sometimes, he had a throwing partner in his 7-year-old son, Brody, which made it more fun. Giles also works with Dom Johnson, a pitching coach in San Diego.

Toward the end of the offseason, Giles held a tryout in Phoenix for interested teams, whoever they were. It shocked him that so many clubs attended it. The Braves were one of them. Giles threw 94-96 mph and had good enough stuff for the Braves to offer him a minor-league deal with an invite to big-league camp.

“For me, I’m like, ‘I just want to play the game. I’m not trying to break the bank.’ Nah, that’s not me,” Giles said. “I like to be on that field because that’s what I love to do. I like to perfect my craft of pitching. That’s my art. I want to perfect it.”

‘Got a lot of respect for guys like that’

Giles is easy to root for.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Any time anybody has climbed those mountains and all in this game, and did what you have to do, and they just kept persevering and getting after it, you always pull for those guys – because you know how hard it is. A lot of times, people don’t understand or have any clue what that individual has gone through to get back where they’ve been, or where they’re trying to go.”

It remains to be seen whether Giles will make the roster. If he doesn’t, he said he’s committed to staying in the minors in the event the Braves need a pitcher.

His performance over the entire spring remains to be seen, but this seemed encouraging: On Wednesday in Clearwater, Giles entered the game and struck out Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos and Alec Bohm in order. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything in the long run, but for Giles, it provided validation that, yes, he can still do this.

“I’m a warrior on that field,” Giles said. “I like to go out and take guys out.”

Asked what has stood out most about Giles, Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said: “Those guys, they’re different. Those closers are different. They’ve got a different mindset than a lot of other guys, and I saw that come out of him. It was like. ‘Here we go.’ I felt like he really enjoyed it. It just looked like it, to me. He was having a great time, and he was up for the challenge.”

‘I’m happy I went through those struggles’

In baseball, like in life, there are failures. They’re only a part of the picture, but for many with mental struggles, they become the entire story.

“And it’s so hard,” Giles said when asked for advice to those dealing with this. “The brain is so tricky because it wants to just think about the negatives, and it’s very difficult to think about the positives. I think if you sit down and you write the positives on a notebook or something, you’re gonna find out there were much more positives than negatives. You can literally see it on a piece of paper. You could literally see it. You could train yourself to be like, ‘There’s one thing on this side, and there are 20 things on this side. Why am I thinking of this one thing?’

“Those are the people that are perfectionists, that they expect to be good at what they do. And that’s great. You want to be perfect, in some way, in your own craft. … I have high standards for myself. I want to perform for these guys, I want to be on this team, I want to win again, and I want to experience what these guys have been doing for the last … six years now? I want to be a part of that.”

His other piece of advice: Talk to someone.

“Man, female. It doesn’t matter what gender or who you are,” he said. “It’s OK to talk to someone. It doesn’t make you any less of a person. If you need help, you need help. It’s OK to raise your hand and be like, ‘I need help.’ That’s awesome. If you ask for it, that makes you stronger than anybody else in the world.”

Looking back now, Giles can feel gratitude for the battles he’s conquered to this point. They are part of his story.

“At the end of the day, I’m happy I went through those struggles because it helped me grow as a person and as a father and all that stuff because I know if anybody ever needs help like that, I can relate to that,” he said. “In any way possible, I can help.”