Kevin Pillar: Defense ! but Offense ?


Move over, Dominique Wilkins. The Jays have their own Human Highlight Reel in Kevin Pillar.

His recent wall-climbing, shot-gunning, glove-losing (almost) exploits have – hopefully! – laid to rest any concerns that his defense would not be up to MLB standard.  Though it is likely safe to assume some regression over the remainder of the season – his 7 Defensive Runs Saved in the Jays’ first 9 games would project to an outworldly 126 DRS over a 162 game season.

The issue that remains is his hitting.

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Pillar’s problem is an unusual one:  he has too much natural talent.  That talent has allowed him to dominate in the minor leagues – MVP of the 2012 Midwestern League, Baseball America’s Top 20 International League Players in 2013, and an all-star at Bluefield, Lansing and Buffalo – despite poor plate discipline.  Throughout his minor league career, Pillar has swung far too often at pitches outside the strike zone and taken far too few walks.

Welcome to the majors, Mr. Hobbs.

When Pillar arrived in the majors in 2013, he found that his free-swinging approach did not work against MLB-caliber pitching.  His wRC+ dropped from 131 in AAA to a worse-than-bad 56 with the Jays.  His BB% was 3.6% (mlb average is around 8% ) and his K% was 26.4% (mlb average ~20%).  And possibly more telling, Pillar’s O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) was 41% (mlb average is 30%).

Apr 12, 2015; Baltimore, MD, USA; Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar (11) hits a solo homer during the second inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, the issues with plate discipline continued, with a BB% of 3.3%, a K% of 23% and an O-Swing% of 44%, all contributing to a triple-slash line of .267/.295/.397.  Still, his 2014 wRC+ of 91 was a significant improvement from 2013 and gave grounds for optimism.

So far in 2015 (insert “small sample size” caveats here) Pillar has an impressive triple-slash of .314/.314/.486.  But the red flags remain.  In 35 plate appearances, Kevin has yet to draw a single walk, and his O-Swing% remains at 43% (as a basis for comparison, perhaps the most famous free-swinger of the modern era was Vladimir Guerrero.  Vlad, as the saying goes, “never saw a pitch he did not like” and was known to swing at pitches a full foot outside the zone. Vlad’s career O-Swing% was 40%).  It follows that, unless Pillar addresses these issues, his offensive performance is at high risk.

The bottom line?  To stay a major-league hitter, Pillar will have to improve his plate discipline – to swing at fewer bad pitches, draw more walks, and strike out less.  Ordinarily, this would represent a daunting task.  It is very difficult for a player to change their plate approach at the age of 26.  But Pillar has been described as both highly intelligent and exceptionally hard working.  I remain optimistic that he could be the exception to the rule, and that he could be a part of the Jays’ outfield for many years to come.