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.)