LOS ANGELES — When Kevin Pillar stepped out of the visitor’s dugout at Dodger Stadium on April 2, he pointed toward the left field corner.
That’s where he and his brother would most often get seats during their teenage years. Growing up in West Hills, they weren’t able to make the trip to Chavez Ravine often, but when they did, they liked to make small talk with the relievers.
Five months later, the San Francisco Giants center fielder is back at Chavez Ravine having set or tied career highs in six offensive categories with three weeks left until he heads into his final arbitration offseason. He’s become an indispensible part of the team he used to despise.
“We were excited to get him,” manager Bruce Bochy said on Friday, before the series opener with the Dodgers. “Part of his whole deal, as a player, you just keep growing and trying to get better, and he does that.”
Before this season, Pillar had a tendency to swing for the fences. He had a 15.9% strikeout rate and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.8, but only a .408 slugging percentage with a high of 16 home runs in a single season.
Heading to spacious Oracle Park, Pillar focused more on driving the ball. Every day, the Giants would post a list of the hardest-hit balls the night (or day) before. Pillar became somewhat obsessed with exit velocity, and being on those lists, and on the seasonlong leaderboard. Whether his balls fell into gloves or between fielders was something he couldn’t control, and clearly, swinging for the fences wouldn’t work at Oracle, but he could at least control how hard he hit the ball.
“It’s kind of allowed me to become more of a complete hitter,” Pillar said.
In his previous six big league seasons, Pillar’s peak hard-hit percentage was 34%, but apart from 2018, he never got higher than 27%. With three weeks left in 2019, his hard-hit percentage (95 mph or harder), according to FanGraphs, is 38.1%, while his soft-hit percentage is a career-low 19.5% (previous low was 21.4%). The Giants have hit 725 balls 100 mph or harder this season, and Pillar has 97 of those. No other Giant has more than 68 (Pablo Sandoval). Adjusting for plate appearances, 6.0% of the pitches Sandoval put in play came out at 100 mph or faster. Pillar is second, with 5.5%.
“I feel like I’ve just learned to swing at better pitches, and maybe take some more borderline pitches,” Pillar said. “The walks haven’t increased, but I think my quality of contact’s gone up, and I think that’s allowed me to put up the numbers.”
When he arrived, Pillar was devastated at leaving the only organization he’d ever known — the Toronto Blue Jays — because they had decided to get younger in the outfield. At 30, he’s set a career high with 21 home runs, is on pace to record his second-highest batting average (.269), has set career highs in RBIs (79), OPS (.765) and slugging (.469), tied a career high with two triples and is one base away from setting a career best in total bases. All that, and his strikeout rate (14.4%) is the second-lowest of his career. He still swings (a 5.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but he’s doing it with a purpose.
“He’s doing what you want to see from your players, and he’s never satisfied, I can tell you that,” Bochy said. “He comes out every day — you see him — with his same intensity. He’s one of those guys are going out there every day. He just seems tireless.”
While Pillar isn’t quite ready to take stock of his first season with the Giants — he’s arbitration-eligible this offseason, and seems like a slam dunk to keep around — he did reflect on how far he’s come since that first game in the stadium he frequented as a boy.
“It’s always crazy to think, you know, I was somewhere over there, you know, five months ago,” Pillar said, gesturing across the visitor’s locker room, behind a pillar. “I had never been to this stadium before [as a player], I’d never put another uniform on. And in my professional career. To sit here and kind of reflect on the the first five months of my season, we could call it, it’s been […] I don’t want to say surprising, but it’s been exciting to see what I’ve been able to do.”
The Giants have no news on reliever Reyes Moronta’s shoulder injury, which is being called a torn right labrum. He underwent more diagnostics on Friday, and should have results by Friday night or Saturday.
Bochy couldn’t remember the last time he was able to put out an all-righty lineup, as he did on Friday against Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw.
“It’s September baseball,” he said.
Brandon Crawford and Brandon belt were due days off, Bochy added, so instead, rookie Mauricio Dubon will start at shortstop and hit eighth, and Aramis Garcia will start at first and hit seventh. Pillar will hit third, and Evan Longoria cleanup.
Right-hander Johnny Cueto was slated to start this weekend in Los Angeles, but has been scratched due to back tightness after a bullpen session. He played catch on Friday, and should be throwing a bullpen on Saturday, after which he’ll be re-evaluated.