The Toronto Blue Jays hit Edmonton for the Winter Tour 2017, and Jays From the Couch was there to ask a few questions.
After escaping the -42 degree weather in Regina the Toronto Blue Jays made their way to Edmonton to wrap up the winter tour. Surrounded by visits to a school, hospital, and taking in a hockey game, the Jays were also at Rogers Place Friday night for an autograph signing and short media availability. Jays From the Couch was there to meet the guys, and ask a few questions.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) January 13, 2017
Blue Jays fans are no strangers to Kevin’s incredible catches. The way he lays out to make plays is something incredible to behold. It’s also no secret that Rogers is essentially like concrete. We asked Superman about the hard landings.
JFtC: With all your superman dives, how much do you hate that floor, and where’s your favorite stadium to land in?
Kevin Pillar: I wouldn’t say that I hate it, I don’t enjoy it. You can’t really hate something that you have to play on all of the time, you have to learn how to deal with it, and that’s just something that I’ve learned. I don’t do as much running, I just try to stay off my feet as much as possible cause I know the wear and tear the turf takes on my body, but it’s definitely improved in just the short time I’ve been there, and I feel like it’s only going to get better as technology gets better.
You know, hopefully ideally one day we’ll be able to put grass in there, you know hopefully, I’m around long enough to see that. As far as favorite place to play, Seattle has got to be up there it’s a beautiful stadium, great city. I also enjoy going to Fenway. It’s one of a kind, it’s unique, so much history. It’s a great experience to play baseball in and also we’re fans of the game too so to be fans there too.
Pillar is also known as a free swinger, and rightfully so. His swing rate at pitches outside of the zone in 2014 was at 43.3%, good enough for the third-worst rate in the league. Over the last few seasons, however, that rate has gotten a full 6.2% better. Pillar finished last year with a 37.1% rate. The improvement here also contributed to a more favorable whiff percentage. Pillar improved from 13.93% to 9.62% against righties, and from 10.71% to 8.32% against lefties.
JFtC: Over the past three years your swing rate at out of the zone pitches has decreased quite a fair bit and as a result, your whiff percentage has decreased as well. Is that something that you’re really focusing on or is it a result of consistently playing every day?
KP: Thanks for noticing! It’s hard to hit pitches outside of the zone, pitchers, I mean we got two of the best pitchers in here, they’re extremely tough to hit. They’re even tough to hit when you know it’s coming. Come out to batting practice one day and watch guys hit the same pitch over and over. Guys don’t hit homers or line drives every time, like it’s an extremely tough thing to do. Trying to stay in the zone is huge for me.
I just kinda grew up a free swinger, got away with it in the minor leagues and never really had to learn any other way. You get to the big leagues and the pitchers are a little bit better, well much better. Their stuff breaks a little harder, a little later. I got exposed. I had to make those adjustments and I continue to try to make those adjustments and realize there’s huge value to our team with me being on base and running the bases, and stealing bases, and taking extra bases, so I just got to figure out a way to get on base more.
If I stay in the zone I’m confident in my ability to hit a baseball. That I’m going to hit balls harder and I’m going to have more hits. The more and more I can learn to lay off stuff outside of the zone, you know my walks will go up and I’ll be able to get on base more.
Last season Sanchez was incredible, pitching so well that he was in discussions for a Cy Young. Throughout the season the young pitcher has leaned on his fourseam and sinker, mixing in a curve and a change. The change up was used much more as Sanchez would turn the order over going from 7% the first time through, all the way up to 17% the third time around. Despite using the change 12% of the time overall, however, Sanchez only went to it 2.72% of the time on 3 ball counts.
JFtC: Some questions about your change up. It seemed last year like you used it a lot more when you were going through the third time of the order giving the hitters a new look. It also seemed like when you got to a 3 ball count you really shied away from it. Are you planning on working on the change-up more to try to give guys more to see and maybe get a little more confidence late in those counts?
Aaron Sanchez: Yeah absolutely. Obviously, for me you aren’t trying to walk anybody, that’s my third pitch I’m not trying to throw that pitch in that situation. But yeah going into spring training that’s one of the pitches that I plan on targeting. I feel like my curveball came along really well later in the year so if I can develop that third pitch I think it would probably just add that much more value to my game. That’s something that is a priority to me. It’s such a feel pitch that you can’t master it overnight. You gotta talk to Marco about what his secrets are.
For the second year in a row, Sanchez is bulking up before spring training. On Tim and Sid, Sanchez had stated that he gained 16 pounds again this year. It was only natural to ask where he was beefing up……
JFtC: Are you working out at Duke again this year or did you go to Boras’ set up in Miami?
AS: Naw, I’m in Dunedin.
Sanchez wasn’t the only Jays pitcher to have a great season. Marco Estrada was a force for the Blue Jays as well. A lot of talk circulated around it being the result of Estrada having one of the best spin rates in the league. Per FanGraphs, Marco averaged an incredible spin rate of 2404 rpm on his fastball prior to September last year. He also managed to keep his change up within 250 rpm, which appears to make it much more difficult for hitters to pick up.
JFtC: Marco, with your pitches, they have elite level spin rate. Is the spin rate something that you focus on or is it more just a result of getting on top of the ball.
Marco Estrada: Apparently that’s important but…. It’s getting on top of the ball. I have no idea what spin rate does to a hitter. Maybe it’s harder to connect, I really don’t know. That’s really not the issue, I give up plenty of home runs. Yeah, my main focus is getting on top of the ball going downhill and a downhill plane I want, and the other focus is making everything look like a fastball. So I want the same four spin, four-seam action on my 4-seam obviously and my change up and my curveball, so that’s my main focus.
If I get on top of everything and throw them all with a certain grip I can get that same rotation and I think that that kind of helps me out with pitching. I’m sure he (Pillar) can probably explain how a ball looks to him when it’s coming. Even when I hit I see some of these things and I, you know, you think about it and go man, that’s pretty tough to pick up, it all looked the same. It’s like I kinda want to do the same thing.
Estrada also had an interesting change in his pitch usage last year. After introducing a cutter in 2015 that he spoke to as a key to his success, the dominant righty went away from it to end 2016 decreasing the usage from an average of 11.99% to 6.9% to end the year.
JFtC: Marco you added a cutter in 2015 and you said at the beginning of last season that it really kind of helped things along. At the end of last year, it started to tail off, the usage of it. Was that a result of anything and do you look at getting back to it more in 2017?
ME: That one’s tough for me. It was a lot of help in 2015. For some reason, it was a little sharper. Smaller. Tighter, and I threw it harder. This past year it almost became a slider. I wasn’t able to throw it as hard. It was breaking a lot more and I’m just going to say it was because of my back (chuckles) maybe not being able to finish it. It just wasn’t the same.
Next thing I noticed I was giving up a few homers on it and I just told Russ, we don’t need it, you know. If you want to go up and in to someone we can do it with just the fastball, I don’t need it to cut. I can aim it that way, you know if I need it going in a little more I can do that. We did kinda go away from it, I threw a couple of them still, but it wasn’t anywhere near what I did in 2015, and for that reason, it just became more of a slider.
The Jays wrapped up the availability and moved on to sign autographs for hundreds of fans. They’ll finish the trip off Saturday at the Battle of Alberta Saturday night.
*Featured Image Credit: D Reddon- JFtC
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