The Delicate Case of Kevin Pillar

With the Blue Jays not participating, my viewing experience of the 2017 MLB playoffs has been rather muted in comparison to the past few years. No matter how much one hates the Yankees or Red Sox, nothing can replicate the feeling of watching your team play in October.

But one added benefit of not living and dying with every pitch is that my judgment is not impacted.  I am watching through a very neutral and decidedly objective lens, which has really opened my eyes to the CF position.

Look around at the teams participating in the playoffs and you see some incredible centrefielders.   A.J. Pollock, Charlie Blackmon, Chris Taylor, George Springer, and Byron Buxton have all been featured heavily not only in October alone, but throughout the season as well.  Watching these guys play made me inevitably think of Kevin Pillar, and about how it just might be time for the Jays to cut ties with him.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Pillar.  Watching him make incredible catch after incredible catch has been nothing short of astonishing over the years.  He is a huge fan favourite and by all accounts is well liked by his teammates.  He seems to love the city and has a huge passion for the game.

But, and here we have be honest with ourselves – he just can’t hit.

Pillar now has three full major league seasons under his belt and nothing about his results suggest that he is (a) figuring things out or that (b) a trend in the upward direction is coming.

Simply compare Pillar’s offensive production to other CF’s across baseball and a very bleak picture emerges.  Out of all qualifying CF across baseball in the past three years (there were 23 in 2015, 16 in 2016 and 18 in 2017), here is where Pillar ranks among more traditional stats:

As you can see….not great.  In terms of OBP, one of baseball’s most important stats – especially for Pillar considering he spent 58 games in 2017 and 20 games in 2016 at the leadoff spot – he was dead last in 2016 and second last in 2017 among all CF.  Same story for OPS.

But things look downright ugly when we take a deeper dive into some more advanced metrics:

Yikes.  Yikes.  Yikes.

The first two numbers basically confirm what we already knew: Pillar never walks (worst or second worst walk-rate among CF for three straight years), and despite the fact that he seemingly always chases awful pitches, he doesn’t strike out a whole lot.

But that’s not what’s so alarming.

wOBA (weighted on base average) combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighing each of them in proportion to their actual run value.  wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) essentially takes wOBA and adjusts it for park and league.  An average wOBA is somewhere around .320 and an average wRC+ is 100.  Pillar is decidedly below average.  In fact, he was ranked the second worst CF in all of baseball in 2017, and the worst in 2016.  For context the leader in both categories this past season was Mike Trout at .437 and 181.  Right around average?  The underwhelming Denard Span at .325 and 102.  To interpret Pillar’s stats, you can say that he is approximately 15% worse than the average CF, and 17% worse than Span.  Not good.  In fact, his 85 wRC+ ranked him 128th out of all 144 qualified hitters across the majors.

The final three numbers on the chart measure offensive runs above average, defensive runs above average, and wins above replacement (the Fangraphs version).  Once again Pillar ranks right near the bottom in the offensive category, and more alarming is that his defensive production has also been slipping.

Which brings us to the final piece of Pillar’s puzzle: his fielding.  He has earned the nickname Superman for his outstanding diving catches, and to the naked eye appears to be one baseball’s defenders.  But the naked eye has long had issues in accurately judging defensive value, leading to the creation of several advanced stats.  Fangraphs “Def” stat ranks Pillar as the 4th best CF, UZR pegs him 6th, and Baseball Reference’s dWAR has him 3rd.

But new this year to the advanced stats craze is Outs Above Average, a product of MLB’s new Statcast revolution.  Known best for measuring things like exit velocity and launch angle, Statcast has tiptoed into the defensive side of the game in 2017.  Outs Above Average (OAA) sets out to measure just how good each MLB outfielder is at turning batted balls into outs.  Every fly ball is assigned a probability based on it’s placement and trajectory, and a fielder is credited with each successful play.  The more difficult the play, the more credit the player earns.  Conversely, failure to make plays will penalize fielders.  The leader in OAA in 2017 was Minnesota’s Byron Buxton at +25.  Pillar?  He ranked 112th at -2.

A similar new statistic – Catch Percentage Added – sets out to measure how good an outfielder is against the batted balls hit in his direction.  Using the probabilities described earlier, an expected catch percentage is calculated for each player based on all balls hit in his direction, along with the players’s actual catch percentage.  An 85% expected catch percentage means that an average fielder would be able to successfully turn 85% of balls hit in his direction into outs.  If that player actually turned 90% of balls hit his way into outs, he has earned a +5% Catch Percentage Added.  The leader in 2017 was once again Byron Buxton with +6%.  Pillar was dead average with 0% (86% expected and 86% actual).

Granted these stats are in their infancy and should be taken with a grain of salt.  There are many ways to interpret them and don’t necessarily mean that Pillar is a below average fielder.  But they definitely raise questions into whether he is the elite, game changing outfielder that many think he is.

And if he isn’t that elite fielder, it begs the question: is his glove good enough to carry his bat?

Watching other CF across baseball – Trout, Blackmon, McCutchen, Springer, Yelich, Pollock – I think the answer is a fairly heavy no.

Which begs one final question: with many of his catches still making the rounds on 2017 highlight reels, his value might never be higher.

And if his value might never be higher, does it make sense to trade Kevin Pillar now?

At the risk of angering his millions of fans, I think that answer is a definite yes.

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