Kevin Pillar Is What We Thought He Was, And That’s Okay
(Title photo credit to Keith Allison, https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/)
Kevin Pillar has been a productive player for the Blue Jays this year, doing an admirable job filling what looked like a possible gaping hole in Spring Training. With two relatively untested players in Pillar and top prospect Dalton Pompey competing for playing time, it was a distinct possibility that both busted and the Jays would lose large swaths of value by enduring a season of replacement-level production in centre field. This fear was further enhanced by Michael Saunders stepping on a sprinkler head and being out of action entering April, an injury that has seen multiple setbacks and appears likely to set Saunders out until at least the middle of September.
But Pillar stepped up, playing well in April on both sides of the ball and forcing himself into centre field on a full-time basis for the club. He’s been making highlight reel catches all season and was almost a league-average hitter in the first half of the season, hitting to a 96 wRC+. At midseason, Pillar was treated as the team’s breakout player, a young player being given a shot and proving that he’s a long-term regular. His signature leaping catches gave rise to a Superman persona and fans and media started to talk about how the Jays should be willing to move Dalton Pompey in trade because they have a real centefielder in Pillar.
As we sit here in mid-August, Pillar’s seasonal numbers tell a slightly different story. Not necessarily a terrible one; one that is clearer and makes more sense of Pillar’s profile. His numbers have come back down to what his peripherals and projections expect. Enter play Friday, he’s hitting .260/.297/.370 for an 81 wRC+. Breaking Blue’s xSeries was last updated last week and sees someone whose batted ball and plate discipline profile suggest an 89 wRC+. This reflects his very high 17.8% IFFB%, hacking-heavy approach (is swinging at over 40% of pitches that are out of the strike zone) and mediocre power. Pillar makes a fair amount of contact and swings early in counts so as not to strike out, but infield flies are essentially strikeouts in terms of value and he’s popped up in 5.3% of his plate appearances.
Preseason projections from Steamer and ZiPS both tabbed Pillar as a true-talent 91 wRC+ guy. The stats thought and think that he’s a clearly below average hitter who will need to add defensive and/or baserunning value to be productive. His bat has even under-performed the projections so far this season, as ZiPS and Steamer have revised their outlooks to say that Pillar is more of an 87 wRC+ hitter.
The offensive breakout hasn’t happened and his peripherals even suggest that he isn’t quite as good with the stick as we expected entering the season. But he is adding the aforementioned defensive and baserunning value! That is entirely what has made him nearly an average regular this season. Pillar has saved 19 runs (compared to average) by Defensive Runs Saved, and 9.1 by UZR. Defensive numbers take a while to stabilize (i.e., reliably capture true-talent, just like offensive numbers do), but Pillar was always rated as a decent-to-good defensive outfielder coming through the system and he has no track record of being bad in the majors. He is likely a legitimate plus defensive centefielder. He’s had his share of baserunning gaffes this season, but the whole package of it as evaluated by the thorough statistic Ultimate Base Running (what Fangraphs uses in its WAR) sees Pillar as having generated nearly six runs this season with his legs.
So this non-offensive production is real and can be expected going forward. Fangraphs Depth Charts (an aggregation of Steamer and ZiPS) have Pillar being worth 0.5 wins rest-of-season, which is a 1.9 WAR/150 pace. The Blue Jays would be apt to at least explore the centre field market in the offseason, or enter camp next year with Dalton Pompey having an equal shot at the job, but right now Kevin Pillar is a fine major leaguer that is commendably filling in a hole. He’s not the team’s breakout story, but that’s okay.