Jays From the Couch looks at the new approach Toronto Blue Jays CF, Kevin Pillar brings to the plate and how much value it adds to his game.
Correction: The post originally used inaccurate data from MLB Gameday. I apologize for the error.
Kevin Pillar has been doing something interesting this spring. Good interesting. So far, he has had 25 plate appearances in televised MLB spring training games, each tracked by BP Toronto writer Gideon Turk. In those 25 PAs, he has seen 40 pitches outside of the strike zone. He has swung at only 8 of these outside pitches (20% O-Swing%). This is an impressive feat for Pillar, even in spring training. Over the last two seasons, he has swung at 38.7% of pitches that were outside the strike zone, the 28th highest O-Swing% among 390 MLB hitters with 300+ PAs. The MLB average is 30.4%.
An improved approach at the plate was Pillar’s stated goal heading into spring training. In February, he told Steve Buffery that “staying in the strike zone is the biggest thing for me and that’s going to be my biggest focus in spring training: just fine-tuning an approach and learning to sit on pitches and evolving as a hitter.” He intended to “go out there and really work on what I feel that I need to work on — just going up there and hunt pitches, sit on pitches, narrowing my strike zone, and hopefully it’s going to lead to more consistent hard contact and an increased number of walks.” He seems to be achieving that goal so far.
It’s pretty intuitive that swinging at balls is not a good approach to hitting. More specifically, the data suggests that swinging at balls primarily hurts your walk rate, which hurts your ability to get on base, generate runs and, ultimately, help your team win. The table below shows the estimated effect that a reduced O-Swing% could have had on Pillar’s 15/16 walk rates and, consequently, his offensive production. “Estimated” is the key word, as a lower O-Swing% may have affected his other offensive stats in unpredictable ways.
For each 1% reduction in O-Swing%, Pillar’s walk rate would’ve been (an estimated) 0.36% higher. This increased walk rate would’ve generated 2.6 more offensive runs above average (Off) and 0.3 more wins above replacement (WAR). Pro-rated for a single season, Pillar could see his WAR increase by 0.15 for each percentage decrease in O-Swing%. While he probably won’t maintain his current 20% O-Swing% throughout the regular season (only 6 of 390 major leaguers have over the last two seasons), even a modest improvement could be huge. If he had maintained an O-Swing% at the MLB average (30.4%) over the last two seasons, he may have been worth two extra wins above replacement.
Pillar’s improved O-Swing% has already paid dividends for him. His walk rate so far in spring training is three times higher than it was over the 2015/16 pre-seasons, his OBP and wOBA are over 100 points higher and his OPS is 250 points higher. While spring training stats should always be taken with a grain of salt, it’s worth pointing out that Pillar’s spring performances in recent years have mirrored his regular season performances fairly closely. That bodes well for his ability to contribute a little bit more at the plate in 2017.
The key take away from this article shouldn’t be that Kevin Pillar is a flawed baseball player trying to get better. It should be that Kevin Pillar is a very good baseball player trying to get better. If he was the former, this article would be 5000 words suggesting that he needs to improve upon every facet of his game. The truth is, Kevin Pillar is above-average to amazing at everything but taking walks and hitting for power, and he’s working hard to get better at both of those aspects of his game.
Over the last two seasons, Kevin Pillar has:
- saved 40.2 defensive runs above average (Def), ranking 5th in the majors among the 390 major leaguers with 300+ plate appearances
- accumulated 10 base running runs above average (BsR), ranking 13th in the majors
- only struck out in 14.4% of PAs, good for 56th lowest in the majors and well below the MLB average of 20.8%
- maintained a .272 batting average, 109th highest in majors and well above the MLB average of .255
This high level of performance has made him the 46th most valuable player in baseball (7.5 WAR), producing more WAR than much more heralded CFs like Andrew McCutchen (6.5), Charlie Blackmon (6.0) and Adam Jones (5.0). Not bad for the 979th pick in the 2011 MLB Draft.
*Featured Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.