There's no mystery surounding Brett Pill’s long, slow climb through the San Francisco Giants’ minor league system that culminated Thursday in his being called to the big league team struggling to find offense and stay in the National League West pennant race.
Pill is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-hand hitting first baseman who captured Giants’ fans’ imaginations this summer with 24 home runs and 104 RBIs at Class AAA Fresno. While the big club was in a free fall from the top of the NL West, thanks in large part to the most impotent offense in the league, Pill was hitting .310 with a .340 on-base percentage in Fresno.
While first baseman Aubrey Huff’s power numbers diminished and his average hovered around .245, Pill was slugging .531 in Class AAA ball with an .871 OPS. Giants’ fans wondered, loudly, why Pill remained in Fresno while San Francisco was falling to pieces, averaging fewer than 3 runs per game.
As mentioned, no great mystery surrounding why it the Giants until Aug. 31 to recall the most productive hitter in the Pacific Coast League. It turns out that PCL batting numbers are inflated to the point that every season produces a hitter or two or three in the league who have Class AAA stats that indicate certain big league stardom.
Giants’ fans might remember that outfielder John Bowker was chasing the PCL Triple Crown in 2010, but never produced consistently in numerous trips to the big leagues with San Francisco. The Giants organization views Pill’s bat the way they viewed Bowker’s bat and, they felt, there was no rush to call on Pill and no reason to expect him to hit anywhere near in the big leagues what he was hitting in the PCL.
Pill’s 27 years old. Players aren’t prospects at 27. Rather, they’re holding on to the hope that they can break through to the big leagues. Pill’s done that, at last. Then, they hope they can prove close to 30 that they do have the tools to succeed in the big leagues. Giants outfielder Nate Schierholtz seemed to be headed off the 40-man roster last spring after failing to hit consistently in San Francisco. This season, as he neared 30, Schierholtz became a productive hitter and a defensive force in the outfield.
Pill hopes to emulate Schierholtz’s success, as he inches toward age 30. If Pill can do that, the Giants will get some sort of boost from the first baseman down the stretch. If he turns out to be another Bowker or one of the dozens of PCL sluggers who lost longball power and points on their average once they left the Class AAA ball parks so friendly to hitters.
Pill is a first baseman. He has played a few games at third base, even played a bit at second base. The Giants tried to see if he had any versatility once Brandon Belt soared past Pill as the Giants first baseman of the future. (Belt was rushed to the major leagues this year because the club has struggled. He’s had MVP numbers in Fresno, yet has his batting average drooping near .200 in San Francisco.)
Pill has shown marked improvement in key areas this summer. His slugging percentage is up from .433 a year ago. His 36 doubles show he doesn’t need to hit home runs to help the decrepit Giants’ ois OPS and his OBP are up, too. He has cut down on his strikeouts every year since 2008 when he whiffed 85 times in Class A ball at San Jose. Pill struck out just 53 times in 516 at-bats in Fresno.
Pill doesn’t walk much, just 24 times this season in Class AAA. He won’t tear things up on the bases, though, with 31 steals in 735 minor league games.
The Giants just hope Pill can supply a spark with the bat. The organization might not consider him a true prospect, but Huff and the other veterans have performed so miserably that the club decided that Pill’s performance with the bat in Class AAA earned him a chance to show he can do better.
Unlike veteran outfielder Pat Burrell who was also added to the big league roster Thursday, Pill provides the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pitching staff a blank slate to work from. If Pill can take advantage of being an unknown commodity, with no big league scouting report available to pitchers, he can make a difference in the crucial, three-game series beginning Friday against Arizona.
The guess is that Pill will play first base against tough left-hand pitchers. Giants’ fans might want him to play first base, at least, against all rightys. He’ll pinch-hit, trying to improve on the bench performances of now departed Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand.
Pill hasn’t played the outfield in the minor leagues, or during a stellar collegiate career at Cal State Fullerton. It’s unlikely he’ll play any third or second, especially given that the club was hurt by defensive inadequacies as the losses began to mount.
There’s no mystery about why Pill stayed buried in the minor leagues for so long. There’s a long line of PCL sluggers ahead of him who failed in the big leagues. The Giants are, admittedly, desperate and looking for lightning in a bottle and … that’s why Pill finally got the call to San Francisco.
Fans who expect an eye-popping run-producer should consider Bowker’s story as they consider Pill’s potential contribution. However, even the bit of power Bowker supplied in his sporadic big league tenure with the Giants would be a welcome thing in San Francisco with the Diamondbacks due in town Friday.
(Ted Sillanpaa is a Northern California sports writer. Contact Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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