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Kevin Pillar was the best version of himself in 2019

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Superman lived up to the expectations.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Stat line

Overall: .259/.287/.432, 21 HR, 88 RBI, 85 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR
With Giants: .264/.293/.442, 21 HR, 87 RBI, 14/19 stolen bases, 89 wRC+, 1.8 fWAR

What you think about Kevin Pillar as a baseball player might say something about the way you view baseball. If you see a player with a .293 OBP, you might think that player has extremely negative value and should not be allowed anywhere near Major League Baseball. If you see 87 RBI, you might think, “Hey, he’s doing something right.”

Those are the extremes. If those ideas met in the middle, the truth would be that Kevin Pillar was a badly needed player on a mostly bad team. Through no fault of his own but for every bit of his effort, Kevin Pillar was the fifth-most valuable Giant in 2019. Yeah, I’m using wins above replacement to make that argument —

5. Kevin Pillar, 1.8
4. Buster Posey, 1.8
3. Evan Longoria, 2.0
2. Mike Yastrzemski, 2.2
1. Madison Bumgarner, 3.2

— but in a couple of ways, he was maybe the third most important Giant of the year. Again: through no fault of his own but also because he played his ass off.

The Giants traded for him after the first week of the season because they were desperate for a reliable center fielder. Pillar’s defensive decline there is easily observable, but the guy they got for 156 games was still pretty good. Definitely reliable. He even played right field for a time when it became clear that Steven Duggar was the better center fielder, but they had the confidence to make the move because he was still a reliable defender overall.

If we just look at those 156 games with the Giants, he had as good a season at the plate as he did last year (89 wRC+). Thanks to the new ball, he hit a career-high 21 home runs (one of three Giants with at least 20 home runs), and his 87 RBI (also a career high) were the most since Buster Posey’s 95 in 2015.

Role on the 2019 team

The numbers tell the story of a just shy of average baseball player who was bad in spurts and nearly average the rest of the time. But the Giants found inspiration in his work ethic. He started 150 of the 156 games he appeared in for the Giants and had just one full day off a game after he hurt himself.

His toughness and consistency is why the Giants selected him to be the Willie Mac Award winner. He inspired his teammates by never taking an inning off or even at bat. It might be de rigueur for a baseball blog to take a huge steaming dump on a player with a sub-average wRC+, but if Buster Posey, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Steven Duggar had the year Kevin Pillar had, 1) the Giants would’ve been better, and 2) those players wouldn’t be at a crossroads heading into next season.

But instead of building up Pillar by putting others down, let’s just look at what happened: the Giants hoped to acquire this version of Kevin Pillar, and that’s exactly what they got. He did some things at the plate few other Giants did in 2019 or have in a good long while. From a pure entertainment proposition, he delivered some moments, made some memories.

On a losing team, that’s enough to be a standout.

Role on the 2020 team

The year-to-year defensive decline will absolutely continue as the center fielder enters his age-31 season and, offensively, history isn’t on his side. As I noted a couple of weeks ago:

There have been just 16 players since 2000 to play at least 60% of their games in center field during the age 31 and 32 seasons (the next two seasons for Pillar) and average an OPS+ of 85 or greater, but just five since 2010:

Adam Jones

Lorenzo Cain

Denard Span

Angel Pagan

Coco Crisp

All of these hitters averaged an OPS+ of 100 or greater in their 31-32 seasons, a feat Kevin Pillar has yet to accomplish.

All this to say it’s unclear if the Giants will bring back their inspirational leader. They can certainly afford to tender him a contract. They could even afford to pay him an arbitration award should they take it to trial (he’s projected to win $9.7 million in a hearing). They can easily make room for him on the roster. Even pencil him in as their Opening Day center fielder. The team doesn’t figure to be playing for anything next year. Starting the year with one of the few decent players from the previous roster wouldn’t be out of line.

If they do bring him back, I don’t think it guarantees he’ll play 150+ games for them. He’d be insurance in case Duggar doesn’t work out or trade explorations in the offseason come up empty. If they don’t bring him back, then I’d read that less that they have a backup plan and more that the team really wanted to assure Bruce Bochy they weren’t trying to do a total tank job in his final season.

But I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. The new front office’s unpredictability — by way of simply being a new group of people — really makes it tough to figure what the team might be thinking moment to moment or even in the grand scheme of things. Maybe the plan is to make 2020 an extreme step back season, maybe it’s not, but given the ruthlessness in their roster moves and trust in their own process the idea that “the Giants have no better option” doesn’t sound like a line that will work anymore.

Brian Sabean or Bobby Evans might’ve been willing to throw $8-$9 million at Kevin Pillar for another year just to see if they could wring out one last drop of useful baseball, but maybe the calculus in the new front office don’t see it’s necessary. Feelings would’ve driven the former group’s approach to the matter. Maybe this is our test case in seeing if feelings factor into the latter group’s thinking.

Farhan-o-meter

I’m sorry to the staff for not explaining the “How Farhan is a player” category more, though I left it vague in part to see how it might be interpreted. For instance, Kenny takes it to mean “value of player relative to a league minimum salary”.

That way of thinking really lines up with the feeling I get from modern front offices: it’s not about squeezing the last ounce of baseball out of veteran players or even finding “hidden value”. It’s a lot more like trying to squeeze as much productivity out of a player — or “asset”, as they’re referred to in some front offices — for as little as possible. Why pay Gerrit Cole for a 5-6 win season when you can make a 14-15-WAR rotation out of five 2.5-3.5 WAR guys for less and a complimentary bullpen for about the same cost?

I simply interpreted it as “serves a specific purpose at a below market cost and doesn’t hamper the team’s ability to do whatever the hell it wants at a moment’s notice.” By virtue of being on the roster, I declare that no player can earn less than 1 Farhan. The Genius Man at one time felt he was worth the roster spot. That it might not have worked out (Tyler Austin) doesn’t speak to bad process.

The Giants traded for Kevin Pillar. They wanted him for a specific purpose (consistent play in center field). He gave them exactly what they needed in the most Kevin Pillar way. He cost the team $5.8 million (and a trio of forgettable players in the trade), which is a little bit less than what a player who put up the numbers he did would ordinarily make. So, there was surplus value, the most important part of any modern baseball transaction. But! He is not a sabermetric-friendly player. That’s very un-Farhan.

But Zaidi didn’t try to make the Giants a winner by finding good, sabermetric-friendly players. He turned over the waiver wire and made minor trades to acquire guys who were hungry to play baseball every day. Kevin Pillar treated the symptoms of what’s truly ailing the Giants and made us all feel a little better.