Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Toronto’s center fielder is playing at an All-Star level thanks to a career year at the plate. And the underlying numbers show it may be sustainable.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
In the fifth inning on Tuesday, Jaime Garcia made a mistake. Behind in the count, after Kevin Pillar took a low changeup for a ball, Garcia missed his spot, grooving a 90-mph fastball right down the plate. Pillar promptly lined it over the left-center field fence to draw the Blue Jays within two runs. It wasn’t quite as substantial as his walk-off, don’t-soak-my-jersey home run courtesy a tougher Edwin Diaz offering in a 1-1 count two days prior, considering the Jays ultimately lost to the Atlanta Braves. It was, however, continued evidence that Pillar might not just be in the midst of a hot streak but in the process of proving himself a better offensive player altogether.
The home run gives Pillar 10 hits in his last six games, pushing him atop the American League leaderboard with 51 on the season. Four of those hits have been for extra-bases, underwriting a surge in slugging percentage he hasn’t experienced since Rookie Ball in 2011. More notably than even the power spike, Pillar has mixed three walks in during the last week, the most important change in his 2017 profile.
That change—one to a more patient approach, or at least a more selectively aggressive one—has him taking more pitches and taking better advantage of the ones he gets to hit. It’s one that’s turned him from a fringy and, to be honest, once unpalatable fill-in at the leadoff spot to someone John Gibbons will have to give serious consideration to keeping at the top of the order even when the team rounds into health (you know, IF they round into health).
Back in spring training, Gibbons sounded lukewarm on the idea of using Pillar in that spot. That’s understandable after Pillar sputtered in a 12-game audition in the role a year prior. Any belief that Pillar fits the “prototypical leadoff man” bill because of a high-contact, low-power, appreciable-speed combo was a nod to the antiquated nature of that prototype. The tape on Pillar through two full and two partial seasons was that he simply created too many outs to hit more than anyone else on the team and burn opportunities in front of the team’s power bats, and those same power bats rendered the likelihood of him stealing smaller (the break-even rate for stolen base success increases as the home run environment does).
But Gibbons had Pillar bat leadoff throughout camp to see if lip service would manifest in results. Pillar was talking up a renewed approach focused on plate discipline, and while he’d said similar things a year prior, the combination of early Grapefruit League results and a paucity of options sure to be healthy out of the gate meant he was a break or two away from getting another chance. It took nine games, all of them hitting in the lower third, before Pillar stepped into the leadoff spot.
He hasn’t hit elsewhere since, and his performance so far suggests maybe he shouldn’t. Pillar owns career highs in batting average (.313), on-base percentage (.365), slugging percentage (.509), isolated slugging (.196), and weighted runs created-plus (138), the latter suggesting he’s been 38 percent better than league average at the plate. Pillar is hitting the ball better, to be sure, but a lot of this success stems from the improved plate discipline he promised in spring.
HeatMaps courtesy FanGraphs
Pillar isn’t just swinging less. That would be one approach to discipline, perhaps, but not a particularly effective one. Instead, with the book out on his previously poor selectivity, Pillar’s become much more disciplined with pitches outside of the zone. It’s a good thing, too, because he’s seeing a career-low rate of fastballs (49.7 percent) and a career-low rate of pitches in the zone (45.9 percent). It’s those pitches off the plate Pillar is neglecting, with his O-Swing% dropping to 32.9 percent. That’s still above league average, but it’s a far cry from 2015 and 2016, and Pillar maintains an above-average contact rate on the ones he does swing at.
Chasing fewer bad pitches has given him the chance to focus in on better pitches in the zone. His contact rate on those offerings is nearly elite, and the narrowed focus is resulting in more balls being driven—Pillar has a hard-hit percentage of 33.3, well up from the past two years. His average exit velocity has only ticked up slightly (to a pedestrian 86.9 MPH), but the frequency with which he’s hitting balls well has jumped dramatically—Pillar is barreling the ball in 7.1 percent of his batted-ball events, way up from three percent last year and 1.8 percent the year before that.
HeatMaps courtesy of BaseballSavant
Essentially, Pillar is doing a better job not of seeing more pitches in general (that’s up, too, but barely), but identifying the pitches he can drive and swinging at a greater share of those. It sounds simple, but for a guy who previously made a lot of weak contact on bad pitches (or decent contact on terrible pitches), it’s an important fundamental shift. The results so far are striking. So long as Pillar sticks to the changes, even his coming down to Earth some should see him settle in as a better hitter than he was the first few years of his career.
Pillar didn’t necessarily need to improve as a hitter to remain a valuable piece to the Blue Jays. Even as the means of measuring outfielder defense improve and expand (to better help put to rest the AL’s centerfield Kevin debate, of course) and the order of the league’s top gloves get shuffled accordingly, each new metric or scale says the same thing in a slightly different way: Pillar’s among the best outfielders in the game. Over the last two seasons, he’d been 10-to-20 percent below league average at the plate and still been worth 7.5 runs. With useful if sparsely used speed and elite defense at a premium position, the bar Pillar needs to clear with the bat in order to have utility is fairly low.
Headed into his first arbitration year—and driven by the obvious competitive nature required to go from 32nd-round pick to decent prospect to everyday player to borderline early-season All-Star—it’s a welcome result. And from the Jays’ perspective, Pillar’s development may help answer a question that’s plagued them for years. The team used six different leadoff hitters last season, seven the year before that, and had given three players an early shot before Pillar.
When healthy, the Jays will once again have a handful of decent but imperfect options. What Pillar’s done over the first six weeks of the season is buy himself more opportunity to show that these changes can hold up over a larger sample. Strikeout rate is said to stabilize around 60 plate appearances, walk rate at 120, and isolated slugging around 160 at-bats. There are multiple seasons to suggest Pillar’s BABIP should fall around .300 or higher. Even if the power trends down some, the consistent contact profile and improved discipline might be enough to keep Pillar where he is. Even failing that, a three- or four-win player is showing marked, potentially sustainable improvement. In a season marred so far by everything from injury to ineffectiveness, Pillar represents a positive to start each game off with.