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One Powerful Pill06/21/2010 3:00 PM ET
It seems, for Brett Pill, like it happens every year. Determined to start the season hot, he comes out of the gates too aggressively, not waiting for his pitch and digging himself into an early hole with a slow first month. It's one of those parts of the game that can get inside a player's head, if he lets it. Pill has gone the other route, though, acknowledging his past struggles.
"I usually have bad Aprils, ever since I started playing pro ball," Pill admits. "I tend to come out swinging at everything."
Indeed. Pill was just a .226 career hitter in the month of April, hitting only three home runs in 261 at-bats. While he started a little slow, he still had his best professional April this season, batting .271 with a couple homers and seven RBI. Nevertheless, he seemed to be ecstatic to turn the calendar page to May.
All he did was come out of nowhere and swipe the first weekly award for the team this season, taking home Pacific Coast League Player of the Week honors for May 3-9. Pill batted .478 (11-for-23) with three walks, seven doubles, a home run, four runs scored and eight RBI over the seven-game span, reaching base at a .538 clip and slugging .913 for the week. That seemed to break him out of his early funk and his batting average has remained above his career mark of .271 ever since.
Part of the adjustment each year for Pill has come with facing a new level of pitcher. After beginning his career in 2006 at Short-Season Salem-Keizer, he spent all of 2007 at Low-A Augusta, all of 2008 at High-A San Jose and the entire 2009 campaign with Double-A Connecticut. With the move to Fresno this season, there was, perhaps, the biggest adjustment to make, as Triple-A is packed with crafty, seasoned veterans who use off-speed and breaking pitches to try to keep bourgeoning power hitters like Pill off-balance.
"A lot of the older pitchers know what they're doing in this league," Pill recognizes, as he has had to change his approach at the plate. "It seems like whenever I try to go after a pitch I get a changeup."
When he stopped trying to swing for the fences, though, things started to come together for the San Dimas native. His line drives began materializing as doubles, then as home runs.
"I just had to change my approach, try to take the ball up the middle," explains Pill. "It seems like most of my home runs have come when I've tried to stay back on the ball."
That's part of the maturing process; understanding how to not just swing as hard as you can, but to learn the art of hitting. Pill knows that if he stays patient and focuses on making solid contact that the numbers will come eventually.
After hitting just 24 home runs through his first 328 games as a professional, Pill stepped in and belted 19 last season despite playing half his games in pitcher-friendly Dodd Stadium at Double-A Connecticut. More notably, he drove in an Eastern League-best 109 RBI, hitting mostly in the cleanup spot for the division champion Defenders. His ability to capitalize with runners on base (his 33 RBI and six sacrifice flies were both team highs through the first week in June) makes him the ideal number-four hitter. He can clear the bases if a pitcher makes a mistake, but he will make sure at the very least that a rally does not go to waste.
"I like the feeling of being in the middle of the order, of being one of those guys who is expected to help drive in runs," Pill says of his role on offense. "But we've got a lot of good hitters on this team. With the guys we've got, there's no real pressure on me to be the guy."
Pill is not an overly imposing figure, despite standing six-foot-four and weighing in at 230 pounds. His frame strikes the eye as more tall than big, as he doesn't carry the extra weight of sluggers like Albert Pujols or Adrian Gonzalez and has yet to fully fill out at age 25. His laid-back, southern California demeanor also offsets his physical stature. But don't be fooled, lest you become his next home run victim.
At the end of the last homestand, Pill sat tied for the team lead with seven longballs to go along with his team-high 14 doubles. With the temperature rising in Fresno and around the rest of the league, expect some of those shots off the wall to start translating into more shots over it, as the baseball carries noticeably better once the weather heats up throughout the summer.
"If I'm going to make it in the Big Leagues, power has to be a part of my game," Pill admits.
But he was first noticed for a part of his game that is often overlooked at his position: his defense. If there is one organization that puts a premium on having a good glove at first base, though, it is the Giants. Six-time Gold Glove Award-winner J.T. Snow set the bar with everything he has accomplished and, more recently, current Major League backup Travis Ishikawa has found his way onto the roster with a similar skill-set. Pill takes pride in his defensive abilities, which Baseball America rate as the best in the San Francisco system at his position, as it is a part of the game he has worked on for a long time.
"There has always been a focus on defense for me ever since I was in college," Pill explains of his time at Cal State Fullerton. "We were taught that defense wins games. We wouldn't even pick up a bat until January." The philosophy paid off then, as Pill and the Titans won a College World Series title in 2004.
While it doesn't always show up in the box score, Pill has already made several outstanding defensive plays, showcasing his quick reactions, soft hands and range in foul territory. He is quickly becoming one of the fan favorites at Chukchansi Park.
"I've gotten to know the fans pretty well. A lot of them come out almost every game and sit in the same spots. Everyone's been great."
His greatest fan, however, has been following him for quite some time. That's what mothers do, after all. Now that Brett is closer to home, just a few hours from his childhood home in Covina, mother Kelly and other members of the Pill clan have been able to attend more games than they have since he was in college. She is also one of the most prolific contributors to the Grizzlies' Facebook page.
"I can't stop her," he laughs. "We've been big into baseball in my family since I was four years-old."
But Pill's greatest fan is also his harshest critic. That's what happens when you are raised by a baseball mom and grow up in a family surrounded by the sport.
"She's always the first to let me know of a mistake. Sometimes I have to tell her 'Relax, it's just a game'."
Baseball is nothing new to the Pill family. His dad, Mike, was a second-round pick by the Pirates back in 1977. He pitched parts of three seasons in the Pittsburgh organization, but never made it past Single-A ball. Then there's his cousin, Mike Snyder, also a second-round pick taken by the Blue Jays in 1999. A first baseman like Brett, Snyder made it as high as Double-A New Hampshire of the Eastern League in his five seasons of minor league ball. Pill played in the Eastern League last year, but now has advanced to Fresno, becoming the first of the trio to reach the Triple-A level. His addition to the Giants' 40-man roster this past offseason suggests that they believe his journey is far from over. Over the last few years he has developed from just another minor leaguer into a player with potential. Like his Grizzlies teammates who have also played for Decker in past years, Pill recognizes the impact that his skipper has on the attitude of the club.
"He gets the most out of you," explains Pill, who is playing in his third consecutive season under Decker and his fourth overall.
Pill should know. He has made the playoffs with Decker in each of the seasons he has played for his manager. He knows what a winning team looks like, and he sees it once more here in Fresno, with Decker again at the helm.
"You know you're more prepared than the other team when you hit the field," says Pill. "You know you have a good chance to win. After being around him for a while and understanding that, it doesn't surprise me how well we're doing."