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Kevin Pillar is playing deeper than ever

His defensive stats have only marginally improved, but that might be underselling the adjustment’s effect.

San Francisco Giants v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

In 2018, Pillar had his all around worst defensive year by every available metric. He posted -2 DRS, and a 2.5 UZR/150. Statcast’s Outs Above Average had him at just one. He wasn’t a liability in the field by any stretch. A fielder putting up those kinds of numbers would be a vast improvement over any non-Duggar the Giants have thrown in center field. 2018 Pillar was 25 runs better than 2017 Denard Span for example. For a player who is supposed to earn his keep by robbing more doubles than he hits, it was a worrying sign.

Pillar’s defense has rebounded ever so slightly this season. His numbers aren’t mind-blowing (3 DRS, 3.5 UZR/150, 2 OOA). On two-star plays and higher (90 percent catch probability and below) he’s at 6 OOA. In 2016 and 2017, he was at 1 OOA each year. With how volatile defense stats are, it’s tempting to just brush it off to variance. Maybe that’s true, but maybe he’s doing something differently. Baseball Savant’s defensive stats have gotten more granular, so it’s easier to say whether a player has made an adjustment and Pillar has.

Some of this improvement has come from his time in right field. Of course, he’s going to look better at an easier position. When Pillar plays center, however, he’s playing deeper than ever before This year, Pillar starts an average of 328 feet from home plate. The major league average is 321. In his time with the Blue Jays, Pillar never averaged deeper than 318 feet over a full season. Pillar moving back seems to have been at the Giants’ behest. In his brief time in Toronto this year, he averaged 322 feet, and the Giants took him a couple steps back.

Pillar is basically the same defender as he was last year. According to Statcast, his sprint speed and jump are the same as they were in 2018. The only difference is that he’s covering less ground. Though his routes remain solid, Pillar’s burst is lagging behind.

Pillar’s defense might not have improved dramatically but moving back 10 feet might be keeping him from being even worse. Looking at Statcast’s directional outs above average, it’s helped slightly on balls hit over his head. He’s been three outs better going back on the ball than he was last year though this has come at the expense of him moving in.

When evaluating defense, it’s always better to see the player in action. I looked for two comparable plays that might illuminate the effect that Pillar’s deeper positioning might be having. These aren’t perfect comparisons—one is hit over Pillar’s left shoulder and the other over his right—but they had similar hang times and were hit about as far and about as hard.

Here’s Pillar trying to chase down a line drive over his head in Toronto.

Even with a perfect route, I’m not sure that Pillar catches this one. Here’s Pillar again chasing down a liner over his head. He has to make a similar leap, but this time he brings it in.

This wasn’t an easy play, but Pillar made it look effortless. Had he started five feet in, he’s not catching it unless he completely lays out. Again, it’s not a perfect comparison, and we’re not going to see the full effect from two plays. Still, this shows how playing deeper is helping Pillar on balls hit over his head and at the wall. Maybe he’s letting more singles fall in, but he’s robbing more extra base hits.

Steven Duggar is still the best center fielder on the team, but with Duggar out for the rest of the year it’s Pillar’s job. The step back last year might have been worrisome, but this year he’s shown he’s still got it.