Decision time (nearing) for Blue Jays and Kevin Pillar at leadoff
The Blue Jays centre-fielder has underwhelmed through 12 games as the leadoff man, and given the team’s 5-7 record, he may be skating on thin ice atop the order
Saturday’s loss to the Boston Red Sox again exposed the Blue Jays offence as a two-legged table, leaning on the heart of their order but gaining little support from the bats surrounding them. Thankfully, yes, it’s early.
With Toronto’s trio of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion remaining a reliable source of run production, the inability of leadoff man Kevin Pillar to reach base consistently has become even more illuminated. Through 12 games, Pillar is 9-for-48 (.188) with nine strikeouts and zero walks.
Against Boston in game two of the series, Pillar went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, a short pop-out on a failed bunt attempt, and a ground ball into a double-play late in the game with none out.
Pillar batting leadoff has been an experiment since day one with him coming off a .314 OBP in a breakout 2015 season. The trade of Ben Revere to the Washington Nationals left the Blue Jays without a “traditional leadoff man”, an increasingly vague and loosely-used term that I’ve come to despise, so Pillar was given a chance to outperform expectations (again).
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After just two weeks, it’s become a more complicated matter. One that is thick and clunky, with several questions that need to be answered.
Off the top, is 12 games enough of a sample size to judge Pillar from in this role? His results have served as affirmation for the primary worries of him taking this spot in the lineup, so I would argue that a level of skepticism is welcome at this point. Especially from those who were vocal in their displeasure with the decision prior to opening day.
There could be value, however, in allowing Pillar to reach 25 or 30 games before making any sort of move. At that point, the club can know with a higher level of certainty — though still not flawless — that they absolutely must address the position in another way.
This brings us around to the potential internal candidates, and it’s a conversation that needs to include Canadian outfielder Michael Saunders at the forefront. Through his first nine games, Saunders holds a .281 batting average and has walked three times (.343 OBP). If those numbers were to stay put for the entirety of the season it’s a no-brainer, but his career OBP of just .302 makes Saunders another case of the Blue Jays saying “prove it”.
Keep in mind, too, that Saunders is getting consistent rest days early in the season. Once or twice per week, Pillar or another Jays hitter would need to fill in atop the order.
Similar parameters apply to another candidate in Russell Martin. No, catchers are not typically considered for leadoff duty, but his excellent on-base tool is currently tucked away in the bottom-third of Toronto’s lineup. Martin comes with a career .350 OBP (.403 in 2014 with Pittsburgh), and while those are catcher’s legs, this wouldn’t exactly be Bengie Molina clogging up the bases ahead of the big bats.
Troy Tulowitzki is another name to consider, but I feel that Gibbons will be more patient with the all-star shortstop in his current spot batting fifth. He shouldn’t be removed as an option altogether, but if there is a way to keep him behind Encarnacion, there’s great value in that.
Next: Stock Up/Down: Blue Jays top positional prospects
Bautista’s mammoth on-base tool makes him tempting, yes, but his bat is too good for the leadoff spot. Being the first man to the dish in the first inning, then having Ryan Goins (and often Josh Thole) hitting ahead of him when the lineup turns over, Bautista will not have the base-runners that he is so good at cashing in. That’s essentially the issue he’s facing already.
The easy answer here remains on the disabled list in Devon Travis, so the timeline of his return will be critical to the stabilization of this Blue Jays lineup.
Currently working in Pillar’s favour could be the fact that some of these likelier options are not kicking down the door as obvious backup plans. If a Travis, Martin, or Saunders were putting up Bautista numbers, then a quick switch would be easy.
At this point, however, it wouldn’t be terribly detrimental for Gibbons to pencil in Pillar atop the lineup a handful more times. Just…on a short leash.