Kevin Pillar’s improved plate discipline led to second half success

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When attempting to identify a trend in baseball, it’s always dangerous to use first and second half splits. They are arbitrary endpoints and don’t even measure the true “halfway” mark of a season.

I’ve made this mistake before when it comes to Colby Rasmus, who posted strong first halves in both 2012 and 2013 but promptly reverted to the enigma he’s always been.

If I were a sane, rational person, this is where this post would end. However there was something very interesting about Kevin Pillar‘s first and second half splits with an event splitting them that could be seen as far from arbitrary.

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As many will recall, Pillar was demoted to Triple-A after tossing his bat into the dugout hallway when he was pinch hit for during a game towards the end of June. Manager John Gibbons admitted the outburst didn’t help his case to stick with the team as he quipped “There’s no room for selfish play”.

As nice of narrative as that was, there were likely other reasons why Pillar was sent down. It was immediately evident, as Pillar raked in Triple-A for two months before he was called up again in late August, but the player who returned had clearly made an adjustment to his game.

Prior to his demotion Pillar had a swinging strike rate of 15.2%, which was significantly higher than the major league average of 9.4%. His aggressive approach led to a 26.8% strikeout rate and 35 wRC+ while he walked not once in 41 plate appearances.

However upon returning to the Jays in the second half it was a different story. Pillar’s swinging strike percentage dropped to a nearly league average rate of 9.5%, which buoyed by some luck on balls in play, helped him produce an above average batting line with a 119 wRC+.

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So what led to his improvement? Pillar will likely always be an aggressive hitter. It’s tough for players to improve their plate discipline significantly once they reach the major league level.

What Pillar was able to to was make the adjustment not to swing at the very worst of pitches far outside of the strike zone, the ones that will likely lead to swings and misses or at best weak contact.

From the ever-intuitive Baseball Savant, here are Pillar’s swinging strikes from the first half of 2014 (575 total pitches).

And from the second half (with a smaller sample of 283 pitches).

We can also increase our sample size by including all swings (not including bunts and pitchouts) on pitches outside of the zone. This image includes all swings on pitches out of the zone in the first half…

…and the second half.

Pillar swung at slightly less pitches outside of the zone in the second half (42.1%) compared to the first (46.4%). Although that is an improvement, it’s still much higher than the MLB average chase rate of 31.3% (h/t FanGraphs).

That being said, the one thing Kevin Pillar has proved each step of his minor league career is he can hit. He’ll never be a high or even average walk guy but his ability to barrel up balls in and near the zone means he should hold his own as a near league average or better bat going forward (tied greatly to BABIP luck). He just needs to stay away from pitches that are two feet off the plate.

Pillar fits in beautifully with the Blue Jays for 2015 as a right-handed bat who can spell either Michael Saunders in left or Dalton Pompey in center if needed. He should play everyday against lefties and also provides somewhat of a safety net if Pompey struggles early.

Can he become more than just a fourth outfielder? The potential is definitely there and if he continues to constrict his strike zone, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kevin Pillar eventually make his mark as an everyday major league player.

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