Kevin Pillar’s first taste of the cruel fickleness that comes with being a baseball player was greeted with heartache. He did not want to leave Toronto, did not want to abruptly move to a new country and coast, did not want to uproot his family to play for the Giants just five games into the season.
Granted, ultimately it is not up to him. But 144 games with San Francisco later, he doesn’t want to dive back into the unknown. For a second time, he’s happy where his feet are.
Pillar is making $5.8 million this year and about to enter his final season of arbitration, which is expected to command about $8-10 million next season. Whether the Giants decide he’ll be their center fielder another season or he gets non-tendered is a mystery. What Pillar wants is not.
“I like this organization. I love being on the West Coast, being a West Coast kid, being born in the state of California,” Pillar, from West Hills (Southern California), told KNBR this weekend. “It’s been a great location for me to set up shop, get to see my family a lot more. Obviously, this organization has a history of winning and a recent history of winning. I know it’s been a couple down years for this organization, and I know that’s not what they’re about.
“I don’t have a choice. I’m still here, I’m still under control for another season. But yeah, I want to be back here. My family’s happy here, I’m happy here. Getting to know Farhan [Zaidi] a little bit, I think he’s got a good plan of attack to get this organization back to where it belongs.”
Does that plan involve Pillar? It’s a difficult question to parse because Pillar is a difficult player to pin down. Among qualifiers, the 30-year-old leads the Giants in batting average (.266), home runs (21), RBIs (79), hits (145), runs (75) and steals (11). Part of that is because he also leads the Giants in at-bats (546). And part of that is because Pillar is not a prototypical Zaidi player; he rarely walks (15). For each negative there is a positive; Pillar is one of the few Giants who has proven he can hit at Oracle Park, slashing .266/.290/.451 at home.
The metrics are not overly kind to Pillar on the defensive side, where he is best known for remarkable plays at the wall and always being willing to sacrifice his body. Advanced defensive stats are not the most reliable, but Fangraphs measures Pillar with zero Defensive Runs Saved — essentially rendering him average (actually up from his negative-2 last year). Fans’ eyes will argue after seeing so many spectacular plays from him, even if the balls that fall in front of him aren’t as noticeable.
Baseball Reference gives him a 1.5 WAR, behind Evan Longoria (2.3) and Mike Yastrzemski (2.0) in the Giants’ lineup, and tied with Donovan Solano. The Giants will want to improve their offense next season, and many positions feature big-money deals that are immovable. The Giants could try to upgrade in center.
“There’s going to be a lot of changes around here,” said Pillar, who has played at least 140 games for a sixth straight season. “Obviously [Bruce] Bochy isn’t coming back. The future’s kind of a mystery, too.
“[It’s going to be] not much different than what I just went through last spring training in Toronto with a whole new coaching staff, or at least a new manager. … It’s something I’m more familiar with than a lot of these guys in the room. It can be intimidating, but it can be exciting, too.”
The emergence of Heliot Ramos, who as a 20-year-old made it all the way up to Double-A this season, may come into play. The Giants positioned him to be a possible call-up next season, and they likely won’t want to tie up center field with a money-heavy, multi-year deal for a free agent. Bringing Pillar back would be the simplest move, if it probably wouldn’t be the sexiest.
This season hasn’t been the easiest for Pillar, who not only was traded at the onset but briefly lost his center field job to Steven Duggar, which he has admitted was tough for him. He did not complain, and when Duggar went down, Pillar happily moved over to a position fans love to see him play.
“You’re always curious to know if you get that love and support somewhere else,” said Pillar, who had spent his entire pro baseball life with Toronto since being drafted in 2011. “I just maintained the same style of play, being the same guy, being consistent, having a passion for the game, playing hard, playing hurt. I think the city of San Francisco has embraced that.”