Toronto Blue Jays fans call him Superman. Kevin Pillar is probably one of the best defensive center fielders in the American League, if not all of baseball. And if it weren't for a certain Kevin Kiermaier, Pillar might have had a Gold Glove or two by now.
But we’re not here to talk about his defense, which has already been covered extensively. In fact, BtBS published an article last year comparing him and Kiermaier defensively. Instead, in what has been a wretched season for the Toronto Blue Jays thus far, Kevin Pillar (the hitter) has been one of its few bright spots. Through May 4th, Pillar is slashing .302/.347/.491, good for a 132 wRC+. At least in the short term, John Gibbon’s decision to put Pillar in the leadoff spot is paying off, as those numbers balloon to a line of .325/.378/.578 with a 165 wRC+ when he’s hitting first. One could be forgiven for mistaking them for Josh Donaldson’s numbers. However, through only 125 plate appearances, we have to ask the question: how much of this is real?
It is normal to be skeptical of these early-season figures numbers. After all, we have 1,444 prior plate appearances from Pillar that contradict his success thus far. And the rational thing would be to wait and see how the season plays out. But where’s the fun in that? (And Blue Jays fans are in desperate need of fun right now.) So, logic aside, here we are trying to make sense of Pillar’s performance, 28 games into the season.
If we take a look at batted ball events, we find Pillar’s line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are pretty much in sync with his career norms. Therefore, it’s not as if he’s made any drastic changes to his swing and become a different kind of hitter altogether. However, there are two interesting things to note. Firstly, he’s going opposite field a lot less this year than he has previous — down from 26.9 percent in 2016 to 21.2 percent this year — while his center percentage is up from 32.3 percent to 38.4 percent. Secondly, his hard contact rate is up from a career figure of 26.0 percent to 33.3 percent this year.
The increase in hard contact rate is interesting, and warrants further analysis. According to Statcast, his average exit velocity has been relatively similar in 2016 (86.1 mph) and 2017 (86.6 mph). However, over the last three years, there’s been a slight increase in his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, going from 88.3 mph in 2015 to 91.0 mph in 2016 and 92.2 mph so far in 2017. In addition, his Barrels per batted ball is more than twice as high, at 6.1% in 2017 as opposed to 3.0% in 2016. His average exit velocity might be the same, but he’s generating a lot more of the hard-hit balls in the air that frequently turn into extra-base hits.
Let’s look at Pillar’s Zone breakdown by exit velocity in 2016:
Now let’s compare it with 2017:
Pillar is starting to make better contact in the zone than he has in the past, especially against right handers. Either he’s seen a higher rate of good pitches to hit right down the middle (a real possibility when we’re only through a month of the season), or he’s learned to make better contact. This could be due to better pitch recognition, improved timing, or again, nothing but a small sample aberration. Nonetheless, this is something worth keeping an eye on.
Cross-referencing the data from Statcast with his plate discipline may help corroborate our hypothesis. According to FanGraphs, Pillar’s swing percentage has remained fairly constant year over year. This season, however his rate of swings at pitches in the zone is up while his rate of swings at pitches outside the zone is down. His in-zone contact percentage is also up, from 90.2 percent to 93.7 percent. Pillar is swinging at fewer balls and more strikes, and he’s making contact with the strikes he swings at more often. That sounds like a product of improved pitch recognition, which could explain his improved contact as well. Additionally, a quick glance at Brooks Baseball shows that his whiff percentage on all pitches — hard, breaking and offspeed — has improved year over year.
Pillar is not a terribly high-walk/high-strikeout hitter, so there’s not much to get from an analysis of his walk or strikeout rate. That said, the fact that his walk rate is currently at 5.6 percent (compared to his career average of 4.3 percent) is another sign that he’s seeing the ball well. Better pitch recognition and fewer whiffs translates to more contact and a potentially higher BABIP. Pillar has always had good bat-to-ball skills — he’s been a .300 hitter throughout his minor league career — which has hinted at some lurking offensive potential if he could improve the quality of contact he made. Maybe now, in his fifth major league season and after lots of adjustment, he’s finally breaking out.
Pillar has every reason to convert his solid start into something more meaningful; in fact, he may have 53 million reasons to do so. He does not need to become an offensive juggernaut to be an incredible player. His defense alone provides three to four wins of value each year, in whichever version of WAR you look at. If he can somehow find a way to become even just a league-average hitter, you’re looking at a four to five win player. He’s also arbitration eligible at the end of this year, and given the contract extension Kevin Kiermaier signed recently, an offensive breakout could translate into a nice payday for the other excellent center fielder named Kevin.