Tuesday, May 10, 2011

OTF's 32 Most Interesting Prospects: No. 22, Brett Pill, 1B

On upside alone, I am very skeptical about Brett Pill. There a slew of prospects on this list I like more than Pill (even Chris Dominguez, whose high strikeout rates and low walk rates don't exactly comfort me at night) and with Brandon Belt pretty much the heir apparent at first, and Aubrey Huff the current solution at the Major League level, there just doesn't seem to be much room for Pill in the Giants organization.

That being said, Pill is still an interesting prospect because of his ability to make contact and his very good year in the Eastern League in 2009 with the Connecticut Defenders. Furthermore, he's off to a good start in Fresno this year, which makes his situation with the Giants even more intriguing (especially considering he's vying for playing time at first in Fresno with Belt and Travis Ishikawa, two first basemen who have Major League experience).

Pill was drafted by the Giants in the seventh round of the 2006 MLB draft after playing three years at college baseball powerhouse Cal State Fullerton. While Pill wasn't a prospect of major note in college (he was a 45th round pick out of high school by the Atlanta Braves), he still managed to have a solid college career, especially his final year with the Titans.

In 2001, he hit .328 with a .433 OBP and a .905 OPS. While he didn't flash much "big fly" ability (he only hit 15 home runs total in his three years with Fullerton), Pill earned a reputation as a good defensive first baseman, and did manage to be a good gap-to-gap hitter as he racked 23 doubles his final year (he totaled 42 over his career). So, even though the lack of home runs from a college first baseman scared off scouts a bit, his ability to make consistent contact (he only struck out 45 times and drew 39 walks his last year in Fullerton) and hit the gaps as a hitter helped him get drafted after he declared for the second time.

In the lower minors, nothing really stood out about Pill as a prospect. The big issue with him was the fact that he didn't flash much power for a first baseman in college, and that issue persisted in the Northwest League, Sally and even California League. He still managed to be a great gap hitter (he accumulated 47 doubles in Augusta in 2008), but his home run numbers were underwhelming. In three years between the Volcanoes, Green Jackets and Giants (the San Jose ones), Pill hit just 24 home runs in 1,347 plate appearances. The lackluster power numbers also hurt his advanced statline as well, as he never had a wOBA over .330 or a wRC+ (Adjusted runs created based on wOBA) over 97 (the average is 100) from 2006-2008.

After the 2008 season ended, Pill seemed to be a fringe prospect that looked to have a replacement-level career in the Majors at best. Here is what Baseball Evolution.com writer Richard Van Zandt said about Pill after his 2007 in the Sally:

"Widely regarded as the best defensive first baseman in the system, Pill led the SAL in 2007 with 47 doubles and ranked 6th in RBI with 91, clubbing 10 home runs.  Overall.  his bat has been less than lethal, as his career line of .259/.316/.398 indicates.  Still, the club has hopes the 6’4” Pill’s power numbers will blossom in time, turning doubles into home runs."

While it was nice to see Pill's defense noted, he pretty much was viewed by most analysts and scouts as a college-style hitter who played  a position where power and home runs were expected. Unfortunately for Pill, home run power did not come naturally for him. Did that automatically bury his chances to be a Major League player? No, but it didn't help and he didn't exactly show the plate approach (0.47 BB/K ratio average over his first three seasons in the minors) that made up for his lack of pop.

That all changed though in 2009 for Pill with the Defenders, as those doubles started to turn into home runs like Van Zandt mentioned in his piece.

In 139 games and 581 plate appearances, Pill hit 19 home runs, 37 doubles, scored 71 runs and drove in 109 RBI as the regular first baseman in Connecticut. What made this power surge (.828 OPS, .368 wOBA, 125 wRC+) even more remarkable was the fact that the Eastern League was a notorious pitcher's league with the weather environments and park (especially Connecticut's) often making things challenging for hitters. And yet, Pill not only overcame these factors, but he managed to have his best season in professional ball.

All this got Giants fans and management wondering: is Pill suddenly undergoing a late awakening with his batting stroke? Or are these offensive numbers a fluke?

Last year, while Pill didn't revert totally back to his pre-2009 form, he didn't exactly tear things up in the Pacific Coast League like he did in the Eastern League with Connecticut. Pill still managed to hit 16 home runs and produce an ISO of .158. However, his wOBA fell to .330 and he was under the 100 wRC+ average for the fourth time in five years (his wRC+ was 90 in 2010).

Were his numbers a dramatic regression? Not really. That being said, to succeed in a pitcher's league and in a tough hitter's environment such as the Eastern League, it would have been nice to see Pill take advantage of the conditions and hitter-friendly environments that the PCL offered in 2010, his first full year in Triple-A.

Pill is off to a good start this year (.328 average, .852 OPS, four home runs), but there are some concerns with his plate approach. He still has continued to be a good contact hitter (he had a 12.4 strikeout percentage last year and has a 10.4 percentage with the Grizzlies this year), but his declining walk rates (5.3 percent in 2010, 2.8 percent this year) don't really spring a whole lot of confidence in terms of his projection as a prospect.

While he could be a surprise at the Major League level (he certainly has shown more power potential the past couple of seasons than he did in the Northwest League, Sally and California League, which is good), it's hard to believe that Pill will make an impact with the Giants. There simply isn't much of a market for good defensive first basemen who lack consistent power and don't really draw walks.

If anything, he seems to be in the mold of a Travis Ishikawa or Lance Niekro (plus defenders who had fringe power numbers in the minors). That probably isn't a good sign for Pill's Major League future. Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see if Pill can break that mold if/when he breaks into the Majors. (And considering Pill is better at making contact than those two, it is a possibility, if a remote one.)


  1. One trick to that I use to get a bead on how good a player has produced is to check out prior seasons of that same league for players of the same age performing at around the same OPS level. I made this up myself, and perhaps this is how BP's PECOTA works, but it makes sense to me from the stuff I learned from Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster Toolkit.

    The reason I think this works is because people tend to get excited when a minor leaguer performs as well as one would hope a major leaguer would. However, that is not exactly apples to oranges, pitchers are worse in the minors, and that's where the MLE theory that Bill James introduced comes in, reducing minor stats to equivalent major league stats. But everyone has their own method, and I frankly don't have the time to do such quantitative analysis.

    One other problem is that people (including me, I should add for this and above) tend to look at players as if they are the same age, when their age is a huge factor in how to evaluate how well the batter actually did in the league (FWIW, I don't do this for pitchers, just different, based on skills that they either have or don't, age don't matter as much).

    Hence comparing how a player did in a league with similar aged hitters in the same league (because each league is skewed vs. any other league) in prior years (as the talent tends to even out across time, and why I look at a range nearby to the OPS).

    That's what helped me distinguish that what Pablo Sandoval was doing in AA at age 21 was much better than what John Bowker was doing in AA at age 23 (and for those, I looked more at their road numbers because of Dodd Stadium's extreme skew to home stats) or Brian Dallimore in AAA in 2003. In Pablo's case, I kept up coming against prospects who I recognized as players who became were highly ranked prospects and some who made majors and did well. In Bowker's case, came across guys who were not that highly thought of, more of a mixed bag.

    It's not foolproof - nothing is - but I think of prospecting as a puzzle where you try to find all the pertinent pieces that you can find. And data is scarce ofttimes, so I would not just look at just the one age, but I would go down a year or two, depending on how much data you find, to, again, see what names get pulled up.

    You also try to take position into account as well, the normal best hitters at 1B, good hitters at the corners, OK hitters up the middle, as a gauge, but I think age is the comparator that most observers do not take account of to the extent that they should.

    This is why I've not been impressed by Pill while others have beat up Sabean over him.

    However, that said, if Pill can be converted to also play 2B, that would increase his value on the bench, because his hitting is OK for a 2B, not so much for a guy who can only play 1B. He could be like an Uggla where you give up defense to get the offense at best, though more likely a nice bat off the bench who can play multiple positions.

  2. OGC, all excellent points! Thanks so much for the advice and the comment.

    I think the age factor in terms of evaluating prospects is a great method. I had kept that sort of in consideration before, but at the same time, I hadn't really comprehensively used the "comparing to players in the past at the same age" method before. Now that I know how well it has worked for you, I'm definitely going to be using that method a little more (having as much as possible to help evaluate prospects never hurts).

    Going back to Pill, if you look at his "great" season in Connecticut, he was 24, which was around the league average. In terms of comparing Pill to other guys at his position in the Easten League, Ryan Strieby in the Detroit system, who is 23 years old (only one year younger) hit 19 home runs in 220 less plate appearances and had an OPS that was 140 points higher than Pill's. Now, I'm not trying to take away anything from Pill. However, you have a guy who's a year younger than Pill and he produces more in less plate appearances. Thus, while Pill should be commended for his solid year, it shouldn't be overblown, for his year was pretty tame when you compare it to what is expected out of first base prospects.

    I really like the move though to the middle infield, and I think he would bring some interesting power and pop to a position in the Giants system that is lacking that. The only issue with me is Pill's athleticism. I can't say for certain, but I don't know if he is athletic enough to make the transition to the middle infield at this point in his career. That being said, if his defense is as good as everyone says it is, then you would think he could be an average defensive middle infielder or slightly below. Of course, this wouldn't be so bad because his hitting would more than make up for it.