Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Your 2019 Giants: Move by Move: Kevin Pillar Acquisition

The Giants acquired Kevin Pillar from the Toronto Blue Jays, for the package of players that other teams had already decided not to take them from the Giants:  Alen Hanson, Derek Law, and Juan De Paula.  They also DFAed Michael Reed to clear 25-man and 40-man spots for Pillar.

Pillar is a below average hitter, roughly .700 OPS career hitter, but has been considered an elite defensive CF for most of his career, until the last season or two.  Still, all the major WAR metrics (baseball-reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus) valued him at 2.0+ wins in 2018 still, bad offense and declining defense.

ogc big picture thoughts

I see a lot of hot takes out there.  Bad trade, De Paula might be great, loved Hanson's speed.  Bad hitter, how does this improve the lineup?  Pillar's defense is declining as well.

Defense:  Check!

First off, let's tackle that defense, which is his main value to the Giants.  For all the talk about his declining defense, they forget about the context of that:  he's still at minimum an average CF defender, and should once again be a plus defender, now that the Giants will mostly use him in RF (and sometimes in LF, and to give Duggar rest in CF).  DRS has him negative in 2018, but, even as much as I like to use DRS because it covers a wide range of defensive values, even that is noisy data.  StatCast has him declined greatly the past two years, but still at +1 Outs Above Average, or average. And RTot (bb-ref) and FRAA (BP) both have him at good defensive levels, roughly one win each (or +10 runs).   He should still be an elite outfielder, probably the best RF fielder we have had in this park, and paired with Duggar in CF and Parra in LF (not sure what happens with Joe going forward, no reports, but I expect him to be playing regularly; Parra is probably plus in LF, RF not so much), this could be one of the best fielding OF in the majors now.

Offense:  Check!

Two of the things that fans always seem to do regarding offense are these:  nix any hitters who are not good, and ignore batting position.  First off, yes, .701 OPS (OPS in 4 seasons as regular player) is not all that great, or even good.  Fans demand good hitters at every position yet the reality is that the vast majority of teams have holes in their lineups.  It's a resource allocation thing, and these teams have prioritized having a good lineup, whereas the Giants have focused on pitching and fielding defense.  And finding not-good hitters with good defense, is usually relatively easy (and economical, Pillar is only being paid $5.8M in 2019, and 2020 being his last arb year, probably around $8M) to find and obtain.

The reality is also that Pillar is usually a 7/8 hitter, and you can get poor hitters and they would fit right in.  The average NL #7 hitter hit .705 OPS in 2018, #8 hit .661 OPS.  So he's actually giving the Giants an advantage over most other NL teams when he's batting 8th, as he's roughly a #7 hitter type with his career .701 OPS as a starter.  He has hit a bit better against LHP, though that was boosted greatly by his great 2017 spike, I think he's likely the same as his 2015-16 and 2018 LHP batting lines, roughly .700 OPS.

And that's a plus that the Giants have been focusing on in the past decade, finding players that have less of a platoon split, Posey, Belt, Crawford, Panik all are still good hitters against pitchers who throw the way that they hit.  Pillar hits roughly the same no matter what, L/R, home/road, first half, second half, he's a steady eddie in all that he does, and thus he can be keep in the game no matter the situation, unless we get a great platoon split by using a bench bat (like Sandoval vs. RHP) and there's men on base and we need runs like crazy.

Win Value: Check!

Lastly, the most important detail is that he still provided value in 2018, he was still worth 2+ WAR by the major WAR methodologies out there.  His defense was still considered to be worth a lot, and while his offensive value per WAR will go down with his move to RF, his defense should also go up, canceling each out somewhat, not sure of the total effects.  Still, at $5.8M in 2019 and likely $8.0M in 2020, he only has to produce roughly 1.3 WAR to earn his contract, 1.4+ WAR to provide extra value.

Overall Big Picture

As I wrote recently, hard to discern what Zaidi's exact plans are, each move is but a small puzzle piece in the mosaic that is coming to light over time.  The acquisition of Pillar is very interesting from a lot of different angles.

For the rebuild minded (who views the Giants as a bad team that needs to be blown up in some way) fans, this trade was a big slap in the face.  A poor offensive hitter with declining defensive value, playing an offensive position like RF, costing $5.8M, as well as losing Alen Hanson and especially Juan De Paula.  It's an improvement over Reed, but why?

For the reset minded (who views the Giants as competitive enough team, and/or will root for the team no matter what), this was an improvement on Reed, giving the team a more reliable bat, and better defense (Reed has actually generated negative value per bb-ref), but still sees the offense as lacking.

For me, who think that the Giants could be competitive, I'm pretty jazzed by the deal, from a number of perspectives.   First, we gave up very little to get a productive major leaguer.   Hanson probably would have been lost via waivers.  Law has never been able to find the magic of his first season, is off the 40-man anyway, so it would not have been easy to bring him back up to see what he got, and we would then probably have lost him via waivers afterward, if we needed to send him back.  De Paula, is 40-man eligible, which means that any team could have picked him off via Rule 5 Draft last winter, and the Giants only has 3 seasons to figure him out, and he would have been slotted in A-ball Augusta, so not a lot of time, and all his options could be gone by the time we want to try him out in majors.  IF he's ready, and don't suffer any setbacks in the need to climb up the minors quickly.   Reminds me of the Randy Winn deal, very productive major leaguer with some power, some speed, but with great defense.

Apparently, this is the move that he was looking to do all off-season, but wasn't able to consummate until now.  He's been talking about getting a much better defensive corner OF, and building better defense overall, and I assume he's been in contact with the teams who had that type of CF, including Pillar, and players of that ilk, like Billy Hamilton and Kevin Kiermaier, who have also been tied to the Giants for a while.  I can see Zaidi targeting Hamilton for a batting stance re-do, his stats screams that he's been taught to swing downward for grounders, to take advantage of this speed. 

This is also a reminder that Zaidi waited for the market to come to him, very unlike Sabean and then Evans, who liked the bird in the hand vs. the two in the bush.  There are merits to their "buy now" tactic, but in this case, Zaidi got one of the guys he clearly was targeting, instead of picking up someone like AJax who was the best fit out of the available options (I also believe Joe was someone he targeted as well).  Maybe Evans could have picked up someone better by the end of spring 2018 had he waited, because even when he was signed, he clearly was not a starting CF type, which they said at the intro presser, then preceded to use him as a starter anyway, because Duggar needed work. 

Also, love to see defense valued by Zaidi.  One of my pet theories is that there is an economic inefficiency with defensive players, where their value is undervalued. And this acquisition shows to me that Zaidi at minimum understands that a player can add a lot of value defensively even if he don't hit all that well.   As I noted above, each hitter fits certain roles, and Pillar is great hitting #8, and is average hitting #7, which are the positions that he has hit in the most for the Blue Jays.  And he would not be that bad batting 6th, especially since he probably can hit higher vs. LHP.

This move also shows that Zaidi is not all about OBP. Fans seems to think that inconsistency in acquiring players represents a defining mindset on the part of the GM.  I saw that all the time with Sabean deals, whatever bias that fan had against Sabean would come out in spades when a deal happened that offended their sensibilities.  They would say Sabean didn't understand OBP or some other nonsense, when he had talked about sabermetric principles in interviews before.

The reality with baseball is that you have a very limited set of options, every GM would love to get high OBP and high SLG hitters who walk a lot and strike out few, but those are pretty rare and thus most GM's hold onto these players with death grips (and extensions).   This trade shows that Zaidi understands the requirement for GM's to fulfill baseball needs even though you have to compromise in other areas, as well as getting value from defense.  And as I noted many times now, there is no compromise to the lineup as long as: Pillar bats 7/8, and the Giants have the hitters to fit in the higher lineup positions.

Leadoff hitters averaged .261/.334/.420/.754 in 2018, and while I don't expect Duggar to reach that high (yet, perhaps as he grows into the role), he's a huge improvement over what we got in 2018 (.270 OBP by Giants leadoff hitters not named McCutchen; he would add 2 wins if he hits his projected .317 by ZIPS).  Posey, Panik, and Belt are okay for #2.  Longoria and Crawford #3.  Belt and Posey cleanup.  Belt, Posey, Panik, Crawford 5th.  Panik and Crawford, 6, 7, 8 good too.

And Pillar and Joe 7, 8.  Joe projected at .657 by ZIPS, but I viewed that as weighted down by his prior stats, where he used a different stance that hurt his power, plus one spot up don't usually hurt that much.  For example, swapping Joe 7/Pillar 8 for Joe 8/Pillar 7 (using ZIPS projections) added only 2 runs over a full season.  And we all know that hitting 8th is hard enough for a professional MLB hitter, let alone a rookie, so I think Joe 7th, Pillar 8th would be perfect for easing Joe in.

Since I'm looking at this, while it's counter-intuitive, based on the lineup regression analysis, it's better to have your higher OBP, lower SLG hitter batting 5th (similar to the counter intuitive for batting 3rd having a lower OBP, whereas most managers, including Bochy, likes to put their best hitter there).  So between Panik and Crawford, while Crawford will probably often get to bat 5th, Panik is probably best there, between the two of them.  Again, though, only 2 runs improvement.

But as Zaidi said in his introductory presser, a lot of baseball is about making those 51/49 type of decisions, and maybe it won't make a lot of difference, already with the two minor changes, that cost the team 4 runs over a whole season, that's roughly half a win right there.  So I expect that type of strict thinking to manifest more often in 2019, than Bochy's gut calls that he's famous for.

Overall, Pillar has been a 2+ WAR player, and I expect him to be around 1.5-2.5 again in 2019 and 2020, or roughly 2 wins added.  I've been hedging my statement by saying .500 or better, and playoffs not surprising, but I think with Pillar added, he should basically cover the loss of McCutchen's 2018 production, so I think I'm leaning towards saying that a winning season (minor change, but different wording) is likely, and some playoff contention during the season.

Then we now have whatever Duggar can add above the CF, which roughly produced -1.5 bWAR in 2018 (Blanco, Gorkys, AJax; not including Duggar).  I think conservatively, he's at least 2.0 bWAR (he was +1.1 bWAR in short stint in 2018, 5+ WAR seasonal rate), which adds 3.5 wins over what those players did.  And we got -0.6 bWAR in LF (Pence, Shaw, Slater, Mac).   Which means we do not have to get a lot out of Joe, Parra, Solarte, Belt, and others, to match that production, or even improve, even zero WAR is an improvement.  Overall (of course, Duggar's gain is not Zaidi, he probably would have started nonetheless), the outfield has been upgraded by around 4 wins. 

Taking the Giants talent level to be .500 from 2018 (barring injuries), this improvement in the outfield of 4 wins would push the team from 81-81 to 85-77, which is playoff contention levels.  And that does not account for any improvement from the IF (with better depth, won't need to play Brandons while injured, so their WAR value should be improved over 2018, barring injury, plus Posey should be hitting better at some point, and Longoria looked like he was better until he injured his calf with that foul ball) or improvement from a good Pomeranz, or the value of improving leadoff with Duggar (that could add additional value, not sure how to calculate that separate from his regular WAR).   I would say that this is a playoff team, except that injuries have made a mockery of my projections, so I'm being conservative regarding how good the team can be.  I think being a winning team is a big enough step, and I'm okay with that position. 


  1. He's on the downslope of his career, but he was a GG candidate as late as 2017. I'd take him over most CFers. And he's only two years of team control so we'll likely move on from him by 2021, if not sooner.

    1. I think the Giants will retain him. Per Fangraphs new 3 years ZIPS projections, Pillar is expected to produce 2.4 fWAR in 2019 and 2.0 fWAR in 2020. He's only paid $5.8M in 2019, and that should work out to roughly $8.0M in 2020, which is under the projected $/WAR of roughly $12M in 2019-20 by Matt Swartz.

  2. The latest news has the Giants instead using Pillar in CF and Duggar in RF, probably going forward. This is because Pillar has not played RF in a long time, and not so much, whereas Duggar was playing RF regularly just a couple of years ago.

    I was a bit upset to see this, but I've seen some say that Duggar has a strong arm so it makes sense to play him in RF over Pillar, and so that's good rationale.

    Also, if we want to think that far down the line, Duggar will probably get less in arbitration, as he'll probably compare with with other CF (.733 avg OPS for NL CF) than RF (.763 OPS avg for NL RF in 2018).

    As Duggar said, it don't matter, either is fine with him, and if any ball gets down between them, then it was meant to be a hit.

  3. Don't mind this deal. It's not gonna save our team but does make them better. His defense is above average even if declining and though he isn't known for his bat, he still had 16 and 15 homers these past couple seasons. He's a right handed bat which we definitely need in a division with a abundant amount of lefty pitchers in our division.

    My lineup with him would be
    Duggar Rf, Panik 2nd, Longoria 3rd, Belt 1st, Posey C, Crawford SS, Pillar CF, Parra LF, Pitcher.

    Solarte can cover any infield position, obviously Kratz is the backup C while Pablo is DH or Third. I think when Mac is ready we call him up and give him a shot and plug him in for Parra. Having his power in the bottom of the lineup will be a boost. Joe unfortunately is a liability defensively but would like to try him at 2nd.



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