Toronto Blue Jays: Checking in on Kevin Pillar’s progress at the plate


Jays From the Couch looks into the early success Toronto Blue Jays’ CF Kevin Pillar is having at the plate in 2017.


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During spring training, Kevin Pillar was taking more pitches outside the zone than he typically has. His increased patience helped drive a walk rate (9%) that was double his career norm, as well as an impressive .906 OPS. Obviously, these were just 65  spring training plate appearances. The question was whether or not he could carry over that improved hitting approach into the regular season.


In general, some real progress has been made. He is currently (not including Monday night’s win) running a walk rate 1.5% higher than his 2015-16 average. When you’re starting from 4.3%, a 1.5% bump is a big deal (in a way, it’s a 35% increase). As a bonus, his strikeout rate (which was already below the MLB average of 20%) has declined a little bit.



Back in elementary school, we were taught an important lesson: in life, one must try to avoid being either too aggressive or too passive and be assertive instead. That lesson holds for baseball. Swinging at every pitch is a recipe for failure. Taking pitches in the zone is just as big a mistake. Success usually comes from both swinging at the good pitches and taking the bad ones.


This season, Pillar has become more assertive at the plate. He is taking more outside pitches than he typically has (increased O-Take %). When he has swung at outside pitches, he has been able to make contact at about the same rate as before (steady O-Contact%). He is also taking a lot fewer pitches in the zone (decreased Z-Take%). Fortunately, rather than lead to an increased swing and miss rate, this has led to increased contact on pitches in the zone (increased Z-Swing/Contact%).


In addition to improved plate discipline, Pillar is providing more all-around production for the Jays at the plate. Jays fans don’t need me to tell them that he has been hitting like a champ this year. His batting average is up and he is hitting for a lot more power, so it’s no surprise that his overall offensive numbers are up too. Pillar has produced.



The season is only a month old, so it’s important to ask whether his improved production is due to improvements in his contact quality or good luck. The answer seems to be a bit of both. Both his xBA and xwOBA have improved over the last two seasons, suggesting that his at-bats are fundamentally more likely to result in both base hits (generally) and extra base-hits (specifically). Pillar is producing roughly the same proportion of batted ball types, but has seen about 6% of medium-hit balls turn into hard-hit balls. That probably explains his increased xBA and xwOBA.



Ultimately, good luck is making a contribution as well. He is seeing more balls in play turn into hits (increased BABIP) and seeing more fly balls turn into home runs (increased HR/FB%). He is getting base-hits more often (increased xBA-BA) and producing more offence (increased xwOBA-wOBA) than would be expected given his contact quality. He is the bizarro-Devon Travis (though a lot less lucky than Travis is unlucky).



Finally, let’s see just how common it’s been for Pillar to produce a 30-game stretch like he has to start the 2017 season. Below are two graphs, one for his 2015 season and the next for his 2016 season. The graphs display the 30-game average of Pillar’s xwOBA over the course of each season. I’ve overlaid two additional lines: the top line represents the xwOBA he has produced in his first 31 games of 2017, while the bottom line represents his 2015-16 xwOBA. [Technical note: I chose to use xwOBA because I believe it’s the single best publicly available statistic for capturing a hitter’s true talent.]



One thing that jumps out when comparing Pillar’s 2015 and 2016 seasons is the improved consistency last year. In 2015, his 30-game xwOBA average bounced from nearly .230 to nearly .330, back down to .230, then all the way up to .350. In 2016, it hovered between .260 and .320 all year (good that he avoided the lows, shame he avoided the highs too).


However, the main thing that these graphs make clear is that, while he has produced at or above his current level over 30 game stretches in the past (three times, only once last year), these were relatively brief periods of time. It will be interesting to see how his xwOBA evolves in the coming days and weeks.


His current xwOBA is hovering just above the MLB average for xwOBA (.316) implying that, for now, he is generating the contact quality that we would expect from a league-average hitter. This is a big deal. While Pillar’s defensive skills are impeccable, he has been a well below-average offensive contributor in his MLB career thus far. Nevertheless, over the last two seasons, he has produced the 9th most wins above replacement (WAR) among centre fielders (7.5 WAR). League-average hitting would have bumped his 2015-16 WAR up to about 9, good for 6th among CF (with Lorenzo Cain). For perspective, Dexter Fowler’s 8 WAR over the last two seasons netted him an $82.5 million contract.


Bat or not, Pillar is one of the most productive centre fielders players in baseball. Only 63 players (including pitchers) produced more WAR than he did over the last two seasons. He produced the 3rd most WAR among Blue Jays during the franchise’s best two seasons in ages (only Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion produced more). His offensive performance in the first five weeks of the season is promising. He’s gotten some good luck along the way, but there is no doubt that he has made fundamental improvements in terms of his plate discipline and the quality of contact he makes. While we can’t say for sure that this improved Kevin Pillar is definitely here to stay, there is a lot to like about his start to 2017.




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









Jeff Quattrociocchi

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.