Despite arguments to the contrary, Toronto Blue Jays’ CF, Kevin Pillar has the potential to be an above average offensive player.
Over the past two seasons, there have been two Jays players over whom I have engaged in a “Twitter war” with a prominent Blue Jays blogger/personality, Andrew Stoeten. The basic summation of my argument for both players, is that I am a big believer in there being some players who have an innate ability to hit, and that consistent high level production through college and/or the minor leagues is worthy of significant consideration when trying to evaluate a player’s potential. Of course, a player’s performance once achieving the big leagues is yet another piece to the puzzle. For some reason, my “adversary” found my examination of college and minor league performance to be worthy of insulting my intelligence on both occasions, and I am here to further document my analysis and opinions.
The two players I am referencing are Devon Travis and Kevin Pillar, and while they clearly have very different approaches at the plate, they do share a similar pedigree of consistent success throughout their college and minor league careers. At this point, I won’t delve too much into Mr. Travis, as even Mr. Stoeten has largely conceded that Travis is likely the real deal. I will focus on Pillar in this piece and why I believe he is probably already at least a league average hitter, and likely on his way to being above league average. This view is not a widely held one, but I hope to persuade some to reconsider writing off Pillar’s offensive skills just yet.
I share the angst many seem to experience in watching Kevin Pillar bat – it is surely not anywhere near as enjoyable as watching Travis’ more disciplined approach. My head has nearly exploded multiple times as Pillar has seemed to try and exercise a weird form of self defense by swinging at pitches headed directly towards him. However, Kevin Pillar has a wide range of skills at the plate, which he has consistently displayed since being a freshman in college. Of course, a Division II college batting track record is hardly predictive of MLB success, but I do believe it is silly to discount it altogether. It is simply not easy to hit over .350 at any competitive level of baseball (something that people like Keith Law and Stoeten seemed to discount with Devon Travis), and I think college performance is worth considering as part of general player evaluation within the context of their development through the minors.
When I look at Kevin Pillar’s college career within the context of his performance in the minor leagues, a pretty clear narrative emerges. He doesn’t have a ton of power, he doesn’t strike out a lot, he doesn’t walk much, and he uses his speed to help drive an above average BABIP. That profile has been consistent in his statistics from his freshman year in college and throughout his time in the minors. During Pillar’s first 328 big league appearances, which comprise his 122 PA’s in 2014 and up until June 1st 2015, he slashed .239/.275/.350 with a BABIP of .287. This compares to his aggregate of .322/.364/.477 slash during over 1,700 plate appearances in the minors. Some argue with me that Pillar was old for the levels he played at in rookie league and low A, and that was a good point. However, he had over 1,000 PA’s at Dunedin and higher at age appropriate levels and Pillar performed in line with his track record.
In fact, I’ve argued that the only extended period in which Pillar has not performed well was during those first 328 PA’s. Is it reasonable to allow new MLB batters a period of adjustment? I believe so. Since June 1st 2015, Pillar has slashed .286/.318/.425 (including a BABIP of .313) with a wRC+ of 99 in about 740 plate appearances. I would argue it is reasonable believe to that is a level he may settle at given his college and minor league track record. However, I think Pillar has upside from that level of production, which at a wRC+ of 99 is right at league average.
Pillar’s BABIP at the MLB level has been a good bit below what he delivered at prior levels. Also, it has been reported that Pillar played a significant chunk of the 2nd half of the 2015 season with a broken hand – obviously the kind of injury that could reduce a batter’s performance level. So effectively Pillar has been a league average batter over 700 PA’s in which a large % of those were taken with a broken hand.
I’ve argued with folks before the season and since that Pillar will develop into a .300/.340/.440 batter, and I stand by that prediction. Pillar certainly appears to be a streaky hitter, and so far this season he started very cold, then caught fire for several weeks up until May 6th. That was the day Pillar made one of his patented “Superman” catches against the Dodgers, when he landed extremely hard and was clearly shaken up. Over the rest of May, he slashed .180/.200/.293 with a .213 BABIP – the kind of “production” we saw from Russell Martin when he was dealing with his neck problem. Pillar likely injured himself on that catch and, just as it did with Martin, it has taken him time to get healthy. For the month of June, Pillar has slashed .290/.317/.500 with a .320 BABIP and a wRC+ of 115 – obviously a small sample size. However, Pillar now has over a year as a starting CF in which he has been effectively a league average hitter, with somewhere around half of his plate appearances occurring while he’s had a significant injury.
I believe most Blue Jays fans would be satisfied with Pillar performing as a league average batter as he has since June 1st last season. When combined with his elite defense, a league average batting Pillar is a really good CF. If Pillar can stay reasonably healthy, I think that level of production is a baseline from which he can improve and/or enjoy some luck. Given his age and reliance upon health and speed for his value, I don’t think Pillar’s production value is likely to age well, but the Jays could be looking at a 6+ WAR CF for the next couple of years.
Ultimately, the nice part about all of this is that the remainder of the season will hold me accountable for my analysis, and I will revisit at season’s end to do just that. In the mean time, I’ll refer everyone to my pre-season analysis of Michael Saunders and what one could reasonably expect from him given his switch to the Jays and AL East.
*Featured Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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