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Kevin Pillar’s upside

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It’s mostly his defense, but also a little — no, no. It’s mostly his defense.

Toronto Blue Jays v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Giants have been hot and heavy on Kevin Pillar all offseason, and after literally every metric available has gone ahead and declared that he’s gone from an elite outfielder to just an average one, you have to wonder just exactly what it is that Farhan Zaidi and company see that we don’t; otherwise, this morning’s trade of roster flotsam in exchange for the longest-tenured Blue Jay feels a little bit more Sabean than Zaidi in style.

Back in 2016, Pillar was an elite defender. By FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved — which is by no means sacrosanct, but still very useful — his +21 DRS was second in all of baseball behind Mookie Betts. In 2017, that dropped to +15 (still good for 6th in MLB) and last season, it was -2 (39th). Given that and Pillar having turned 30 in January, it’s reasonable to conclude that he’s in age decline.

Still, Zaidi is smarter than all of us combined (do not fact check this). What does he and the rest of his team see that we don’t? Could it be that the Blue Jays allowed 208 home runs last season, the fifth-most in baseball? In that 2016 season, they allowed 183, 14th in MLB. Hard to save runs when the ball is going over the wall. They allowed 203 in 2017 but also the 17th-lowest fly ball rate in baseball (35.4%) and most of the balls in play (40.7%) were pulled pitches. Tough to gain chances when the ball isn’t coming to you.

A shoulder sprain forced him out for a few weeks after the All-Star break, which lowered his total innings in the outfield, but if you look at his putout rates and count his OF assists, they’re remarkably steady year to year. He’ll record outs in around 26% of his innings and average 7 assists.

And let’s take a quick look at the Statcast data.

Outs Above Average (OAA) is the cumulative effect of all individual Catch Probability plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them. For example, a fielder who catches a 25% Catch Probability play gets +.75; one who fails to make the play gets -.25. Read more about how Outs Above Average works here.

Expected Catch Probability expresses, based on the difficulty of balls hit to the fielder, how many an average outfielder would have caught.

Actual Catch Percentage is the actual performance of the particular fielder on those plays.

Catch Percentage Added is the difference between the two, showing how much the fielder added (or didn’t) based on the opportunities he was presented with.

Last year, Pillar recorded just one Out Above Average. Gorkys Hernandez led the Giants with +6. Andrew McCutchen was -10. And since there was no difference between Pillar’s catch probabilities, he was recorded as an average defender, right in line with Cameron Maybin, Carlos Gomez, Brett Gardner, Tommy Pham, and George Springer. Still, his 27.8 ft/sec recorded spring speed shows he’s still an above average runner (and 29 stolen bases over the past two seasons backs this up a bit), so that combined with not playing for the Blue Jays could suggest there’s something left in the tank.

So, yes, there’s enough data to suggest that last year was fluky and that he could be slightly above average for the Giants. He could be an extremely useful defender to cover Triples Alley and cover the fly ball hitters in the NL West (okay, mainly just the Dodgers).

But what are we missing here? Why all this fuss stretching back to December trade rumors? Could it involve his bat? Is that career line of .260/.297/.396 deceptive? I think I might’ve found something here, even though, to answer that question — no, absolutely not, that’s a terrible line.

Last season, Pillar was tied for 50th in MLB with 57 extra base hits. That’s one less than Randal Grichuk and the same number as Starling Marte and one more than Nelson Cruz, Ronald Acuña, and Scooter Gennett, and two more than Michael Brantley. Is that evidence of hard contact?

Statcast ranks him as below average in the Barreled ball and average exit velocity categories, but those averages could be have been pillaried by his general inability to make consistent contact — his infield fly rate of 17.7% is obscene and combined with Yangervis Solarte’s 19.2% means we’ll be seeing a lot of infield popups. But Statcast ain’t everything, and he did hit 31 home runs over the past two seasons.

The raw counting stat of extra base hits led me to look at his hard contact percentage. From 2016-2018, Pillar’s hard hit rate was 29.3%, 88th in Major League Baseball, 0.5% less than Hunter Pence’s rate, but 0.9% greater than Cameron Maybin’s. Now, it seems to me that trading for a player who is much younger than Hunter Pence who did well in his time at AT&T Park and also of a somewhat similar profile as a player you invited to Spring Training is more than a coincidence.

On that note, Pillar’s pull % — a batted ball direction rate — was 39.9% from 2016-2018, or 0.1% more than Rajai Davis’s rate. Davis is 38. If he were 30 like Pillar, I’m sure the Giants would’ve pursued him. Is pull % all that valuable? Well, if you’re a team like the Giants trying not to give up the few pieces you have to trade for players who aren’t going to help you much, but you want to add players with some value, then I’d think looking for right-handed pull hitters, especially if they’re outfielders, is a good thing — especially since Oracle Park plays very well to that type of hitter.

So, I’ll close with this: Pillar’s three-year pull rate is just ahead of Rajai Davis. The next right-handed hitter ahead of Pillar with a rate of 40.3% is Mike Trout.