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