Blue Jays, Pillar and the Statcast Honeymoon

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 25: Kevin Pillar
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 25: Kevin Pillar /

Kevin Pillar’s defensive performance has declined in 2017 by most measures.  But none more than Statcast’s Catch Probability Leaderboard.  What gives?

The Blue Jays’ Kevin Pillar is a polarizing figure.  Many believe that he is one of the best defensive centre fielders in the game, while others question whether his frequent “Superman” dives are really necessary.  Even measures such as UZR/150 and DRS have a human – and therefore subjective – component, and as such are subject to debate.

Fortunately, a (relatively) new tool has emerged that allows for an almost-completely objective analysis of Pillar and other fielders.  The Statcast Catch Probability calculation uses high-speed cameras and radar to determine two variables:  how far the fielder had to travel, and how long he had to get there. Based only on those two numbers, and by comparison with thousands of similar plays, Statcast calculates a catch probability for every outfield play.  So, for example, it might calculate that a particular play had a 40% chance of being made – which is to say that an average mlb fielder would make the catch 40% of the time (and not make it 60% of the time).

Statcast divides catch opportunities into five categories, ranging from a 5-star catch (one that had a catch probability of 0-25%) to a 1-star (91-95% probability) and tracks, for each fielder, the number of opportunities at each star level and the number of successful plays.

Eye test vs radar gun

Statcast has provided some interesting insights.  As for example – remember Kevin Pillar’s catch against Jose Ramirez on May 9th?

Pillar’s catch was described as “one of the best catches you’ll see all year”  and one writer said that his “jaw-dropping diving grab is the early favourite for catch of the year“.

Looks like a 5-star, no?  But actually, it was only a ~32% catch difficulty – about an average 4-star.  In terms of distance traveled and time, it was almost identical to a catch by Chris Owings in 2016. Kevin had 4.64 seconds to travel 64 feet, while Chris had 4.62 to travel 63 feet.

Owings got a better jump, and was accordingly able to make essentially the same catch without a dive.

It follows that Statcast can sometimes “see” things that are not readily visible to the naked eye.

Which brings us to Kevin Pillar.

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Troubling Pillar trends

In 2015, Kevin was a Statscast beast.  He had an exceptional 32% five-star success rate  and an 80% rate on 4-star opportunities.  In 2016, Pillar was still a Statcast darling, ranked #5 among all mlb centre fielders (just ahead of some guy named Marisnick), even though his 5-star success rate had dropped to 24% and his 4-star to 64%.  But so far in 2017, things have not gone so well.  Kevin has a 0% catch rate on 25 five-star opportunities and a 20% rate on 4-star (though his rate on 1-3 star catches – those of below-average difficulty – has remained the same).

So what is going on?

Could it be age-related decline?  Unlikely, in my view.  Kevin is only 28 years old, and even if age were a factor it should not have such a dramatic effect.

Could it be an injury?  Remember that in 2016 Kevin played with a torn thumb for much of the second half.  The Jays knew, but nobody else did.   Kevin’s fielding decline in 2017 has been almost entirely due to decreased range (his fangraphs RngR dropped from 21.8 in 2016 to 1.6 in 2017).  So is it possible that he has a hidden issue with his legs that is costing him a half-second on his first step?  And that the Jays, not wanting their opponents to take advantage, are hiding this weakness?

Could the issue be mental?  There has been considerable speculation that the Jays might be willing to trade him – could this have interfered with his focus?

Could it be a motivation thing?  In 2015 and 2016, the Jays were very much in contention.  A player might be more inclined to risk injury to make a spectacular catch when he knows that an additional game won or lost could be meaningful.

Or could it be that Kevin’s stratospheric fielding results in 2015 and 2016 were an aberration, and that 2017 is a better reflection of his true talent? Remember that back in 2014 his scouting report read “As a corner outfielder, he’s above average defensively and in center I’d consider him average or at the very least adequate“.  Kevin’s 20.3 UZR/150 over 2015-16 is the third highest among qualifying mlb outfielders over that period (Kiermaier and Heyward, in case you were wondering).  But over the last 10 years, no major league outfielder has averaged an UZR/150 over 20 – not even Pillar.  So, brilliant, yes.  But sustainable?  Likely not so much.

The bottom line

Pillar’s defense is what makes him special.  At his current 2017 UZR/150 of 9.3 (still 9th best among major league OF) he is only an average ~2 WAR player.  With Hernandez and Alford knocking on the door, and potential trade (Yelich?) and free agent (Cain?) targets, the Jays will need to determine which Pillar – the 2016 or 2017 version – is the one they can expect to see in 2018 and beyond.

Next: Urena's playing his way into the IF picture