Blue Jays Lead Off Hitter: Why Kevin Pillar is a bad choice.

There are some important reasons why Kevin Pillar should not lead off for the Toronto Blue Jays

 

So, early in the off-season I took a look at the different options to lead off, and as part of this article I discussed Kevin Pillar. At the time he had his champions, but I tried not to take this discussion seriously because by and large, last year Pillar was not a good hitter. But the number of champions grew in number and in boisterousness and now, almost everyone, including the Blue Jays’ very own manager John Gibbons, seem to want Kevin Pillar to front the Toronto Blue Jays lineup. Now, I am not a fan of this and I seem to be in the minority, so this will be a little different than what you’re used to.

Where old school baseball fans remember a time when the lead off position was a place for speed players. A position where they would get on base to steal and move around the field, a lot has changed with the advent of baseball analytics, Sabermetrics. Sabermetrics grant a trained individual to learn more about individual players and about the nature of the game in general. The biggest news in Sabermetrics, the one that brought the topic to light was the story of Moneyball, where Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta vaulted the study of lineups and players into a new plane of existence. Their focus on each player’s ability to get on base as the catalyst of offence sparked even further studies of where in the lineup these players most needed this quality, which led to the study of any qualities that each position in the lineup most needed in order to create a batting order that meshed.

There were some important findings in the research. The three most important positions in the lineup were first, second and fourth, due to the number and importance of at bats. The value of a steal in front of a home run or power hitter is a lot less than the value of a steal in front of a singles hitter. And most importantly, the value of any player’s offensive contribution is best summed up into OBP (or OBA), which was further refined by Tom Tango (in The Book) into wOBA, which weights on base values for the quality of means of getting on base. By this measure, it is easy to see that Kevin Pillar is not a quality offensive player yet. Kevin Pillar should not be the lead off hitter in this Blue Jays lineup because his speed will not get to be used; he does not have quality at bats; and he does not, and shows no signs of starting to, get on base. Kevin Pillar is not ready to take up the mantle of lead off hitter.

Kevin Pillar is able to steal bases, and keeping him at the top of the lineup both limits his chances and the effectiveness of these stolen bases. Hitting in front of Josh Donaldson, and the other power hitters at the top of the lineup, it would be overly risky for Pillar to steal second and move up the base. A home run scores that base runner either way. Now, considering more neutral results, single or double, runners score from second at a rate about thirty percentage points higher from second on doubles, and about forty higher on singles. So, when looking at the changes, the largest change is that on singles. And hitters that hit mostly singles are at the bottom of the order, not at the top, which means the value of the steal is marginally lower when you move up higher in the order. Because of this, Pillar will not take as many chances to steal.

This was seen last year with Ben Revere, stealing much more last year in front of the soft-hitting Phillies, than in front of the high quality, high power Blue Jays. Revere saw that he could not steal as often if he wanted to keep his value high, and ended up having the worst half season stolen base total of his entire career. Kevin Pillar will get fewer chances to steal, ruining the value of that tool, and the marginal value of each steal will be even lower, leading to even lower value on his stolen bases. Base running skills other than stolen bases are notoriously inconsistent from year to year, so we cannot be certain about his non-stolen base running value, which would ultimately lead to a massive decrease in the 8.1 BsR score from 2015. If we give him an above average, but still lower score than last year, as a projection for what is to come, 2.5 BsR, that is the value of almost 1 fWAR. Pillar’s decreased chance to steal and lower value of those steals can, all other things being equal, lower his value by a full win, or as Fangraphs likes to approximate, about $8,000,000.

Kevin Pillar does not have quality at bats, an important element to being a lead off hitter. Seeing pitches allows the batter behind the lead off hitter to get extra chances to notice tips in the delivery, take note of anything interesting, and also contributes to getting opposing pitchers pulled earlier. However, quality at bats does not just mean watching pitches, it also means having a real plan, and executing that plan at the plate. Pillar is 364th of 445 batters in the MLB with one hundred plate appearances in pitches seen. This is at the 18th percentile, in the bottom 5th of all hitters. This means he swings at a lot of pitches, which shows in his 32nd place 62.0% swing rate. What is shocking is that Pillar is 9th in the league in O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches out of the zone that a batter swings at) with 39.8%, which means that he swings at an inordinate amount of pitches outside of the zone. Now, his contact rate on these pitches is a 35th best at 71.3%, but he has a poor .344 slugging percentage meaning that the quality of this contact is not worth the swing. Compared to his .500 slugging percentage on pitches in the zone, it is clear that if Pillar wanted to maximize his value as a hitter, he would stop swinging for these pitches outside of the zone. Well, this is a rather obvious conclusion, but what can be distilled from this is that Pillar goes to the plate without a plan, and if he has one, he has real trouble executing it. In your lead off hitter, you want a hitter who is principled in his approach, a hitter that has quality at bats and makes quality contact, and Pillar is none of these things.

The lead off hitter’s most important role, his one true purpose, is to get on base and Pillar does not do a good job of this. Pillar’s highest monthly walk rate was 6.1%. According to Fangraphs’ glossary, a 6.1% walk rate is between below average and poor, closer to poor. Since this is Pillar’s highest monthly rate, it is no shock that his 4.5% yearly walk rate is deemed to be right around awful. Most importantly, Pillar showed no signs of improvement throughout the year, with a lower second half walk rate of 4.4%, compared to 4.5% in the first half. And with just a 5.7% walk rate in Spring Training, it is hard to imagine improvement. Walking is not the only way to get on base, hits work too, but it is the most consistent year to year because it is not subject to random changes in the opposition’s ability to scout and shift for you.

Kevin Pillar had a very pedestrian BABIP of .306, which due to its average nature is probably not subject to much regression positively or negatively. But, to delve into the details of what produced this BABIP, a 39th place 42.9% pull rate, a 10th lowest 30.2% center rate, an 18th worst 24.7% hard hit rate, and a 4th worst 24.7% soft hit rate, all of these numbers are scarily similar to those put up by ex-Blue Jay Jose Reyes. So Pillar hits the ball lightly, and to predictable parts of the field. Yes, he did work with Bobby Tewkbary this off season, but whatever Josh Donaldson’s and Chris Colabello‘s swing coach did, it has not changed results, given that Pillar has an identical .121 ISO this Spring to what it was last season. Pillar does not walk enough to help him get on base, and he also does not have high enough BABIP tendencies to get on base using just hits. Leading off is important because it gives the batters behind you, the best batters on the team, a chance to hit with runners on base, and if Pillar cannot do that, ultimately he will fail as the lead off hitter.

Kevin Pillar got a lot of value out of stolen bases last season, which will be muted if he leads off, costing the team about a win or $8,000,000. Pillar struggles to put together good at bats, which means that he does a disservice to the batters behind him in that they will not get to see pitches. He does not get on base enough to earn the top spot in the lineup. Kevin Pillar is a great defensive player, a fan favourite, but fan preference and feelings should not get in the way of proper lineup construction. Kevin Pillar hitting in the 7th or 8th spot in the order will allow him to be the player he wants to be, and it will simultaneously donate those important, and often late inning at bats, to players who are better hitters; players who deserve it and players who can ultimately help the team win.

I wrote this to say that right now, Pillar is not a lead off hitter. If he shows significant improvement walking, chances are that he would make a good lead off player, but that is not the player that Kevin Pillar is, that is what we want him to be.

 

 

*Stats come from Fangraphs. Spring stats from Baseball-Reference, zone-specific SLG% from Brooks Baseball, and pitches/pa from ESPN.

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

 

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Cole Nefsky has been in love with baseball from before he could walk. Cole is a candidate for a Bachelor of Mathematics from the University of Waterloo and a Bachelor of Business Administration from Wilfrid Laurier University. He has been involved in the game of baseball as an elite level player for various clubs around Toronto, coached the AAA Minor Bantam Vaughan Vikings and even umpire for several years. Cole enjoys long form analysis, coming from statistics and analytics; and mechanical analysis.

Cole Nefsky

Cole Nefsky has been in love with baseball from before he could walk. Cole is a candidate for a Bachelor of Mathematics from the University of Waterloo and a Bachelor of Business Administration from Wilfrid Laurier University. He has been involved in the game of baseball as an elite level player for various clubs around Toronto, coached the AAA Minor Bantam Vaughan Vikings and even umpire for several years. Cole enjoys long form analysis, coming from statistics and analytics; and mechanical analysis.

  • Maximilian Brandon

    I suppose when you hit .322 in the minors you are not too concerned with plate discipline.
    But when you hit south of .280 your lack of plate discipline becomes readily exposed.
    Where have you gone Rickey Henderson?
    #1 batting spot by league:

    LEAGUE AVERAGES GP AB R H 2B 3B HR TB RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS

    American League 162 679 97 181 34 7 15 274 63 .266 .325 .403 .728

    National League 162 680 98 184 36 6 15 277 61 .271 .330 .408 .738

    MLB 162 680 97 183 35 6 15 276 62 .268 .328 .406 .733

    Pillar 159 586 76 163 31 2 12 234 56 .278 .314 .399 .713
    In this setting Pillar, if he can replicate last year’s stats, looks like an average AL lead off hitter.

    • Cole Nefsky

      He does look only slightly below average, but when were we satisfied with average? The league is slow to adapt to the new findings, so it is better to be ahead of the curve. Thanks for your comment.

      • Maximilian Brandon

        Another interesting stat – the closer Pillar got to batting in FRONT of the big bats the higher his OBA got.
        Batting 5th oba .250, 6th .255, 7th .274, 8th .350, 9th .353

        • shaun doyle

          This interests me. Though the sample sizes for each are not identical, it is an interesting point. Could mean a lot, or not. But, worth noting, for sure.

        • Cole Nefsky

          I mean, the way I interpret this is that the less important his spot in the lineup is, the better he performs. The closer he is the the front of the lineup, the worse he does.

  • jucojames

    I wrote about my views in February and can summarize here. I think the base case is the figures Maximillian references, which is effectively a league average lead off hitter. However, I think all of the warts Cole reasonably references are potential areas for improvement. There are a lot of negative “if’s” which need to occur for Pillar to remain league average. If his BABIP stays relatively low, if his hard contact rate stays awful, if his plate discipline remains horrible, and if any adjustments like those from Tewksbary are fruitless in helping address the hard contact rate issue. I think there is a reasonable chance that one or more of these legit negatives can and will improve, which would result in the player Pillar was during 4 years of college plus 1700+ at bats in the minors….and from June on last season. So essentially, the only period of his post-18 yr old+ career in which Pillar wasn’t a .300/.340/.450 kind of hitter was during his first 300-400 MLB at bats. I think that was/is the likely outlier period.

    • Cole Nefsky

      Just a couple things, he played D2 in college, so take that with a grain of salt. He has never walked in the minors, having only one year’s walk rate above 6%. His BABIP is league average. His ISO in the minors is average, which reflects his scouting report. And most importantly, instead of taking responsibility for the lack of plate discipline, he decided to blame it on the fact that only power hitters walk. Even though he sees, within a percentage point, the number of balls in the zone Donaldson does.

      • jucojames

        I am in no way saying that Pillar is ideal – I’d prefer a mid 1980’s Wade Boggs leading off in front of the Jays’ lineup. I think if/when healthy, Travis is likely a better candidate, with Pillar batting 9th. I am obviously not equating D2 college performance to big league production, but if one looks at his development there has been a definitive arc with a reasonable band of expected performance. Of course he isn’t likely to bat .380 and OPS 1.000 as he did in his senior year of college, but his college production was consistent within a band. Then, he adjusted to professional ball and wooden bats within a reasonable production band – namely .310-.320 batting avg. His BABIP was above average in the minors because he profiles as much, with his speed he is likely to get more than his share of infield singles off weak contact. His last 4 months of 2015 slashed .305/.339/.438, which I would argue is a reasonable progression of performance given his minor league production and profile. To me he really is likely to be a right handed Ben Revere with less SB and higher SLG.

    • Cole Nefsky

      Just a couple things, he played D2 in college, so take that with a grain of salt. He has never walked in the minors, having only one year’s walk rate above 6%. His BABIP is league average. His ISO in the minors is average, which reflects his scouting report. And most importantly, instead of taking responsibility for the lack of plate discipline, he decided to blame it on the fact that only power hitters walk. Even though he sees, within a percentage point, the number of balls in the zone Donaldson does.

    • shaun doyle

      This is good to point out. Do we really think there won’t be at least one of these things improved upon? It’s possible. He may just be what he is and improvements may not come. But, the one thing everyone has said about him since they heard of him is that he works harder than anyone. That, combined with extra tutelage, has to point to improvement.

      The other thing is that we’re debating over a spot that doesn’t really matter. In a regular lineup in the major leagues, this spot might be more important. But, in THIS lineup, the difference between Pillar or Saunders or anyone else is not enough to worry about. That is not to say who is in the spot is irrelevant, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge problem.

    • shaun doyle

      This is good to point out. Do we really think there won’t be at least one of these things improved upon? It’s possible. He may just be what he is and improvements may not come. But, the one thing everyone has said about him since they heard of him is that he works harder than anyone. That, combined with extra tutelage, has to point to improvement.

      The other thing is that we’re debating over a spot that doesn’t really matter. In a regular lineup in the major leagues, this spot might be more important. But, in THIS lineup, the difference between Pillar or Saunders or anyone else is not enough to worry about. That is not to say who is in the spot is irrelevant, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge problem.

      • Cole Nefsky

        A responsible management team never expects improvement without the player showing some signs. If Pillar said he was trying to walk, sure; if he said he was trying to go up the middle more, sure; even if he said he is working on hitting the ball with more authority and in the air, sure. But none of this has been said, in fact he doesn’t even take ownership of most of these issues. The spot can lead to a difference of 18-25 times on base over a season, if we score on a quarter of those, it’s 4.5-6.25 runs, about a win.

      • Cole Nefsky

        A responsible management team never expects improvement without the player showing some signs. If Pillar said he was trying to walk, sure; if he said he was trying to go up the middle more, sure; even if he said he is working on hitting the ball with more authority and in the air, sure. But none of this has been said, in fact he doesn’t even take ownership of most of these issues. The spot can lead to a difference of 18-25 times on base over a season, if we score on a quarter of those, it’s 4.5-6.25 runs, about a win.

        • shaun doyle

          I hear you.

        • shaun doyle

          I hear you.