Blue Jays manager, John Gibbons, was quoted this week that he is likely deciding between Michael Saunders and Kevin Pillar for batting leadoff for what is expected to be a vaunted Blue Jays offensive lineup. I have to admit that I have been against the idea of Pillar batting leadoff, “meh” about the idea of Saunders batting leadoff (even as I am very optimistic about Saunders in 2016 if he plays in Toronto), and an advocate of batting Troy Tulowitzki in the leadoff spot until Devon Travis hopefully returns healthy.

One of the reasons that I decided to start writing for JaysfromtheCouch is that I realized how much I missed the kind of drill down research I used to conduct as part of my professional career. My colleague Catherine shared her thoughts this past week about the idea of Pillar batting leadoff, and I decided to drill down into his history to see if I could come up with a narrative, which would change my mind or at least upgrade my opinion to “meh.”

As Catherine shared in her column, Pillar was a tremendous batter during his college career. He also displayed a very consistent track record through his 3+ minor league seasons, as he was a .300 hitter across the various levels. Pillar slashed a combined .322/.364/.477 in the minors over 1,788 total plate appearances.

He struggled during his initial time in the big leagues, but that is pretty typical for young players as they adjust to the extreme level of competition and advanced scouting they face. He had peek-a-boo time in the big leagues in both 2013 and 2014 with only a combined 232 plate appearances. He struggled significantly over those 232 plate appearances, and continued that struggle during the first two months of the 2015 season. Over those first two months, Pillar slashed .223/.263/.321 over 206 plate appearances – obviously not what one would want to see out of a leadoff batter!

Fortunately for Pillar and the Blue Jays, the remainder of 2015 saw a dramatic improvement in his performance at the plate which echoed of his performance during his time in the minors. From June forward, Pillar slashed .305/.339/.438 with a wRC+ of 111, which is the level of a solid MLB batter. To place that figure into further context, a full season at a wRC+ of 111 for 2015 would have placed Pillar 9th in MLB amongst CF, and ahead of Dexter Fowler and Adam Jones.

If I ended my analysis there, I would have been moved from the “ugh” opinion on Pillar batting leadoff to “meh” – so success! However, the more I dig the more I think that Pillar may be the superior candidate relative to Michael Saunders and perhaps of any player on the Blue Jays. Even with the excellent last 4+ months of performance for the 2015 season, Pillar has shown a notable weakness versus fastballs during his time in the big leagues. One of the ideas about Pillar batting leadoff would be that he should see a steadier diet of fastballs and better pitches to hit given the batters which would immediately follow. This may not be a great thing overall for the 2015 version of Pillar, as his weighted runs above average (wFB) listed on his Fangraphs page was -3.3 in 2015.

I see a pattern when I look through Pillar’s batted ball data, and it is that he has struggled tremendously with late vertical pitch movement. His weighted runs above average using PITCHf/x data for 2015 were quite poor against sliders and sinkers, coming in at -7.9 and -3.2 respectively. Even within types of fastballs, Pillar put up 1.3 against four seam fastballs versus only -0.5 against two seam fastballs – again using PITCHf/x data.

As someone who suffered Juan Samuel PTSD flashbacks from my youth, I’ve regularly cringed at Pillar’s weakness for swinging at low and away sliders. I’ve also been alarmed at times watching Pillar bat as he seems to have decided to swing no matter what, and flailed at pitches which were shockingly inside off the plate. His plate discipline number have been bad, so the concept of pitch recognition being an issue with Pillar is very likely, in my opinion.

This is where we can hope for some magical fairy dust from Bobby Tewksbary, who has been a batting instructor for Josh Donaldson and Chris Colabello. Reports and video have emerged this winter of Kevin Pillar and Troy Tulowitzki adding a leg kick to their swings. Not surprisingly, Tulo also developed some fastball issues in 2015. One characteristic that Tewksbary devotees appear to share is the ability to murder fastballs. Donaldson’s wFB for 2015 was 40.6, Colabello’s was 12.6, and Jose Bautista’s, another leg kick loader, was 20.1. As stated earlier, Pillar was -3.3 and Tulo came in at 0.8, which for Tulo was down from murdering fastballs during his time in Colorado when he had a wFB of 20.2 and 29.1 for the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

One of the concepts that Jose Bautista has talked about when he adopted the leg kick was getting started “early”. The leg kick seems to begin the process of swinging without sacrificing the ability to let pitches get deep and improve pitch recognition. I am optimistic that this change in approach could help Pillar (and hopefully Tulo as well) better handle late vertical movement and improve his performance against fastballs. Pillar also has suffered from a pretty pathetic hard contact rate during his MLB career, which also makes sense for someone struggling to hit the fastball and dinking and dunking sliders and sinkers. His hard contact rate of a meager 24.7% in 2015 leaves ample room for improvement.

So after considerable thought and digging into the numbers, I have been transformed into being a Kevin Pillar advocate in the leadoff spot. With Devon Travis hopefully returning in May or June, what is the real risk of letting Pillar have a crack at leading off? I think a base case is that he will be the hitter he’d been in college, 1700+ plate appearances in the minors, and the last 4+ months of the 2015 season. That would result in an improvement over what we could have reasonably expected from Ben Revere.  Add in his considerable base running value, and even at this base case level of performance, I think Pillar should bat leadoff. However, I think the real upside lays in the potential that Pillar makes meaningful strides with his swing mechanics and makes the kind of leap forward offensively in 2016 that he did defensively in 2015.



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