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San Francisco Giants: Is Kevin Pillar bad or just unlucky?

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 23: Kevin Pillar #1 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates their victory during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays Rogers Centre on April 23, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 23: Kevin Pillar #1 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates their victory during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays Rogers Centre on April 23, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Since the San Francisco Giants acquired Kevin Pillar, he has put up the worst numbers of his career. They shouldn’t give up on him, but they need to make some changes.

In the first month of this season, the San Francisco Giants acquired outfielder Kevin Pillar from the Toronto Blue Jays for a mid-level prospect (Jose De Paula) and two organizational depth pieces (Derek Law and Allen Hansen).

While Pillar has never made an All-Star team, he has been a solid starter over his career in Toronto. He immediately projected as the Giants best outfielder and he seemed like the perfect fit for the Giants.

A little over a month later, he’s in the midst of the worst season of his career.

In his prime, Pillar was a transcendent defensive player. Now he’s 30 years old and his defensive numbers have declined considerably.

This season, Pillar ranks three outs below average by Baseball Savant’s metrics. While still an upgrade over what Austin Jackson was doing around this time last year in center, it’s a far cry from what was expected.

At the same time, Steven Duggar ranks as the eighth-best defender in baseball with three outs above average. We were all waiting for Duggar to become the everyday center fielder and has been everything he was supposed to be defensively.

Meanwhile, Pillar is simply no longer the defensive player he was in his prime, and it’s time to push him to right field to give Duggar the chance he deserves.

Defense may have been Pillar’s calling card, but his bat looked like a valuable addition as well.

In the last two seasons, Pillar combined to hit .254/.292/.414 with 31 home runs and 111 total extra-base hits. Those numbers are not anything stellar, but if you’re reading this, I don’t need to remind you what kind of production the San Francisco Giants have been getting from their outfield since…you know the drill.

It was that combination of skills that made Pillar worth at least 2 wins above replacement (according to FanGraphs) each season from 2015-18.

Unfortunately, Pillar’s not hitting much either.

His .216 batting average overall is a career low. His .247 on-base percentage is historically bad. His .385 slugging isn’t a career worst, but still leaves something to be desired.

His numbers in San Francisco have been slightly better, but a .270 on-base percentage still feels like a dead spot in the lineup. wOBA is a statistic that tries to account for a player’s offensive production. League average this season is .318, Pillar is at .266.

Baseball Savant uses players batted ball data to generate an expected wOBA to try and account for bad-luck. Sadly, that number isn’t too kind to Pillar either, suggesting in fact that he has been slightly lucky.

There are plenty of statistics out there. If you dig deep enough, you can always find room for hope.

So here’s the positive spin. It’s really the only one worth looking at with Pillar for now. The Giants gave up a solid prospect to get him, he has another year of potential team control left, and the Giants can afford to let him play through a slump.

Pillar’s career batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .290.  Since 2015, it has never dipped below .280 for an entire season. That’s right in line with the accepted statistical notion that players tend to have a BABIP around .300. With a few exceptions, most players tend to hover around the same level for their careers.

Pillar’s BABIP for 2019: .224.

Over time, the statistical community has come to understand that different types of contact result in different outcomes, which makes perfect sense. Over the past few years, FanGraphs dedicated a number of investigations trying to predict what a player’s BABIP should be based on the types of contact they made.

I used this formula for xBABIP from their final installment in 2017 and found something to hold onto.  That formula expected Pillar’s BABIP to be .287, which is right in line with his career average. I then used that xBABIP to work back how many more hits Pillar would have if his BABIP were in fact .287.

Assuming all of those additional hits were only singles, Pillar would be batting .266/.293/.435, which is pretty close to his career production level.

Since he has never shown good plate discipline, Pillar is even more reliant than most on batted-ball luck. A .293 OBP is still incredibly underwhelming, but he was worth 2 WAR last season with a .282 OBP.

The Giants were not expecting Mike Trout. Any acquisition they made was going to either be for a player with marginal skills across the board or some major holes in his overall game. In Pillar’s case, his plus power and defense are what make up for his other shortcomings.

Next. The opener didn't work, but it's still the right idea

So far, San Francisco Giants fans have every reason to be frustrated with his performance, but there’s reason to expect more production soon.

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