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Kevin Pillar and the joy of baseball

The Willie Mac Award is the purest team award there is.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The annual Willie Mac Award has an almost profound purpose behind it. Baseball are long and propped up by peaks and valleys, and when it’s all over, few feel satisfied by what transpired, even if they’ve received financial security.

The game itself is based on failure. It’s a guaranteed slog with the occasional burst of not-failure. Teammates become a hybrid of co-worker and family member at best or adversary at worst. So for teammates to give an award to one of their own at the end of the season that says, “Hey, thanks for making us appreciate the game itself” is beautiful. It’s a mark on the calendar that forces Giants players, coaches, and training staff to take a step back and consider just the baseball of it all. Who among them made them feel good about the job?

The Willie Mac Award is an annual honor bestowed upon the most inspirational player on the team, voted upon by Giants players, coaches, training staff and fans.

Kevin Pillar played virtually every game on the schedule during his tenure with the Giants and in virtually every one of those games played, he did something to show you that he was locked in at the task at hand. Sometimes those were tough at bats. Usually it was a defensive play. From the outside looking in, it never looked like he took an inning off or a plate appearance for granted. On paper, that seems to be reality. He had one of his better offensive seasons and is tied for the team lead in home runs with 21.

But it’s the stuff like laying out to make a diving catch when you’re already up 7-0 . . .

. . . or when you really need him to . . .

. . . or just counting on him to be in the lineup every day. Kevin Pillar provided consistency on the field. He made it easier for his teammates to gear up and play each day. That’s not nothing — that’s a pretty big deal. How many co-workers have you had whose performance or mere presence has made you feel better about the work at hand?

Dave Dravecky introduced Bruce Bochy who would announce Pillar as the winner saying,

I’m overwhelmed with the significance of this award. You see, Willie McCovey meant the world to me, and as I watched his life while he was with us, I recognized some very significant things about Willie that I wanted to adopt for myself. He was a man of integrity and a man of humility.

Willie McCovey’s death last year means his memory and the background behind this award will fade from memory and reform into legend, but before that happens, try to remember previous awards. There was Willie Mac, sitting in his wheelchair, and 100,000 watt smile radiating from a joyful face. That’s what Willie brought to his life and the game itself and that’s what this award recognizes.

So, thank you, Kevin Pillar, for being a gamer. For being joyful, even when the Giants weren’t.

Willie Mac Award winners

Year Player
Year Player
1980 Jack Clark
1981 Larry Herndon
1982 Joe Morgan
1983 Darrell Evans
1984 Bob Brenly
1985 Mike Krukow
1986 Mike Krukow
1987 Chris Speier
1988 José Uribe
1989 Dave Dravecky
1990 Steve Bedrosian
1991 Robby Thompson
1992 Mike Felder
1993 Kirt Manwaring
1994 (not awarded due to strike)
1995 Mark Leiter
1995 Mark Carreon
1996 Shawon Dunston
1997 J. T. Snow
1998 Jeff Kent
1999 Marvin Benard
2000 Ellis Burks
2001 Mark Gardner
2001 Benito Santiago
2002 David Bell
2003 Marquis Grissom
2004 J. T. Snow
2005 Mike Matheny
2006 Omar Vizquel
2007 Bengie Molina
2008 Bengie Molina
2009 Matt Cain
2010 Andres Torres
2011 Ryan Vogelsong
2012 Buster Posey
2013 Hunter Pence
2014 Madison Bumgarner
2015 Matt Duffy
2016 Javier Lopez, Brandon Crawford (tie)
2017 Nick Hundley
2018 Will Smith
2019 Kevin Pillar

If you don’t want to watch the entire ceremony, Pillar’s opening statement is what we’ll be talking about the rest of the way.

First off, I’d like to thank Farhan for believing in me and trading for me and making me a Giant.

The Giants are still in their transition phase and figure to be maybe even a little bit worse next year if they don’t re-sign Madison Bumgarner or add a decent player or four in free agency, so, having a guy or maybe even multiple guys who are happy to be on the team and can contribute a little bit figures to be a consideration in the offseason.

They might not bring back Pillar, and almost exclusively for analytical reasons. That would be an interesting decision on the front office’s part, because the metrics aren’t going to be different in a good way going into next year from how they were going into this year, and this year the new front office traded for him anyway.

His 2019 production had to have been in a the upper percentile of their internal projection systems, too, meaning that it’s not a guarantee that they’d walk away from a player just because he has a sub-100 OPS+. On the other hand, we might find out that a lot of what Farhan & co. did this year was designed to simply get the franchise through the final year of Bochy’s deal and last pages of the Giants’ dynasty.

There have been plenty of Willie Mac Award winners over the years who weren’t on the team the year after winning the award, but I think the best comparison goes to David Bell. Now, Pillar did have 17 plate appearances in Toronto before being traded, so that’s a little bit different from Bell, who was acquired in the offseason, but basically, Bell played in San Francisco in 2002 and that’s it.

Bell was going into his age-30 season and Brian Sabean determined that it was better to supplement the loss of Jeff Kent by going after a younger and wildly better offensive upgrade in Edgardo Alfonzo, even though he’d cost much more than Bell. A potential comparison for Pillar’s situation going into the offseason is the availability of Marcell Ozuna.

But that’s all the business stuff. In the Giants’ final year as the team of the 2010s, amidst a sea of changes that washed away the relevance of the franchise cornerstones and through day after day of dealing with Bruce Bochy saying goodbye to everyone and everything, there was Kevin Pillar, standing out and making baseball fun. Fans even had a chance to put in their vote. It didn’t take long for him to win over an entire fan base through his effort.

Kevin Pillar was one of the few reasons why this season had any joy to it. The Willie Mac Award was the least we could do to show our appreciation for that.