Kevin Pillar Is Muscling Up, But to No Avail

In his first year as an everyday center fielder in 2015, Kevin Pillar put up the kind of defensive numbers that make folks question defensive numbers. Pillar was a below-average hitter who finished the season with the same WAR as Miguel Cabrera, thanks to his gaudy defensive runs saved totals. The talk of the offseason, regarding Pillar, then became, “Well, if he can just become a slightly better hitter, how high can his ceiling be?

The answer is probably “pretty high,” because while we should’ve expected Pillar’s defensive numbers to regress — it’s tough for anyone to consistently run +15 run seasons — they’ve actually gotten better. In fact, Pillar’s already topped last year’s UZR total, and we’re still at the All-Star Break.

The bat, though, hasn’t come along. It’s even declined a bit. For a major step forward in Pillar’s offensive game, the type that, when paired with his apparent defensive value could make him a borderline superstar, one of two things would’ve needed to happen: (1) he’d need to start taking some walks, or (2) he’d need to add some pop.

Walks aren’t there. Walks have gone down. Down, to the point where only one qualified hitter’s done it less often. And the power’s not there, either. Pillar’s 2015 isolated slugging percentage was .121. His career ISO coming into this year was .123. This season, it’s just .133. Up, but no real difference.

Except, there is a difference within Pillar’s game, and it’s a part of a hitter’s game that directly correlates to hitting for more power. It’s just not all adding up. See, I wrote a post about Jake Lamb adding power the other day, and noted that, from 2015 to 2016, Lamb added the most average distance on his air balls, and the second-most exit velocity. Matt Holliday, who’s hitting for his best power in five years and isn’t playing through injury like he was in 2015, was tied for first in distance and solely in first in exit velo gains. Those two really stuck out from the pack, and it’s reflected in their power numbers.

I didn’t mention the guy who was third in both gains, though by now you can probably guess who it is:

AB_VeloDistanceGain

Pillar’s added 27 feet to his average air ball, and is hitting them five miles per hour harder. The only guys who have muscled up more on air balls have seen significant power spikes, yet Pillar’s power production hasn’t budged. The added authority can only be viewed as a positive, but here’s the problem. Holliday’s gains landed him in the top-15 of both average air ball distance and exit velocity, among the 243 batters with 50+ air balls in each of the last two years. Lamb’s put him in the top-five of each. Pillar still ranks 123rd in average air ball distance, and 108th in exit velocity. The gains are monumental — really — but he was coming from such a low place (bottom-10th percentile in each category in 2015), that he’s still coming up short.

Kevin Pillar is at least hinting at some untapped power, and that’s undoubtedly a good thing for the future of his own well being, as well as the Blue Jays as a team. Only thing is, it’s still untapped, and he’ll need another leap forward for those gains to actually reap any rewards.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

newest oldest most voted
tz
Member

Pillar muscling up? Guess he’s trying to keep up with JBJ 😉