Before Game 2 of the ALCS on Saturday, Blue Jays' outfielder Kevin Pillar made a startling admission. "I have not dressed up as Superman," he acknowledged, "but I don't have to, because I am Superman."
Shocking it may be, but given the otherworldly nature of his defensive portfolio and having never seen he and the Man of Steel in the same place at the same time, I can't quite dispute the claim. Pillar's exploits in the outfield have been well noted, with rarely a week going by that he hasn't made some unbelievable catch.
Certainly, Pillar is a defense-first player, and that aspect of his game accounts for the lion's share of his value. His 2015 campaign has been worth an exceptional 4.3 fWAR, with that value split between 3.2 offensive runs above average and 16.6 defensive runs above average.
However, on a rate basis, the defensive skill is nothing new. In 2015, Pillar has been worth 15.4 UZR/150 games. Over 2013-2014, he actually earned a higher 18.4 UZR/150. Why is he now getting a full season of regular plate appearances in the lineup?
Obviously, the unreliability of fielding statistics over the previously small sample of his opportunities renders his defensive numbers less useful for quantitative purposes, but at the same time, kind of makes my point. To the eye, he displayed roughly the same caliber of defensive performance, but that alone was not enough to keep him in the majors for a sustained period.
The thing that has made the Blue Jays feel more comfortable giving Pillar everyday playing time actually might be his marked improvements at the plate. The above fWAR value breakdown means that he has demonstrated a skill that he's never shown before - for his position (mostly center field), he's been an above-average offensive player.
Pillar's BABIP isn't significantly higher, and he's actually hit for slightly less power this season. A noticeable improvement is seen in his contact rate - he is walking slightly more, but he's almost halved his prior strikeout rate. His wRC+, at 93, is still below average, but we'll get to the above average part of his offensive game a bit later.
It is hard to say that his eye at the plate dramatically improved, given his 40.9 percent chase rate being the sixth-highest in baseball, but he is making significantly more contact on those chases - from 62.9 percent in 2013-2014 to 73.6 percent.
One might imagine that Pillar would generate more weak contact on such pitches that would negatively affect his BABIP and overall production. Though, when parsing his batted ball profile, a couple of points appear. First, he's actually hitting slightly fewer ground balls than in the past. Second, he has a lower than usual BABIP on fly balls, and a high average on grounders (data per Fangraphs).
|2015 %||2013-2014 %||2015 BABIP||League BABIP|
Pillar has usable but still below-average power. It makes sense that more of his fly balls are converted to outs than other batters. Additionally, he does have the exceptional speed necessary to have a sustainably high success rate on ground balls.
A large portion of his defensive value comes from his range - every one of the highlights linked above focuses on his outstanding timing and speed. His outstanding plays don't focus on an arm like Yoenis Cespedes, or an unbelievable double play like Andrelton Simmons. It's mostly just running down hard-hit balls.
The speed he demonstrates on those plays, and was similarly demonstrated in his 109 career Minor League stolen bases, has finally translated to offensive production at the Major League level. Through 2013-2014, Pillar stole one base, with a combined infield hit percentage of 5.6 percent (below league average). In 2015, he has stolen 25 bases with a 9.3 percent infield hit rate.
In total, Fangraphs rates his base running in 2015 as worth 8.1 runs above average - just behind Mookie Betts at 8.3 RAA, which makes him the second-most valuable base runner in the game.
Kevin Pillar has developed a contact approach, that when combined with his base-running acumen makes him an above-average offensive center fielder (in addition to his elite glove). While his speed-powered defense has given him multiple opportunities in the majors, his ability to get to that same speed on the base paths is likely what sustained his most recent opportunity and keeps him in the Blue Jays plans beyond the 2015 postseason.
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Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.