Red Sox Sign Kevin Pillar to Complete Outfield Reconstruction

Trading a star player is easier to sell to a fanbase when said player’s potential replacement is part of the return package. When the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen, they got back Bryan Reynolds. When the Marlins traded Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto, they got back Lewis Brinson and Jorge Alfaro. The exit of a star player always begs the question of who will take his spot, and if the team can point to a shiny young newcomer from another organization and say he’s the answer, it helps to maintain at least an illusion of stability at that position. Fans might miss their old star player, but fear not, because the new guy could be just as good, and so on. This has worked out better in some situations (McCutchen to Reynolds) than others (Yelich to Brinson), but it’s easy to see why a front office would want to employ this kind of strategy.

That’s how the Boston Red Sox behaved when scouring the market for potential returns in their efforts to dump the transcendent Mookie Betts (and, importantly, mountains of salary commitments), and they found their match in the Dodgers, who offered 23-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo as part of their package in a deal that was completed earlier this week. On the outset, it seemed like a seamless transition. Verdugo certainly won’t be as valuable as Betts in any phase of the game, but he’s a decent enough bat and capable fielder who the Red Sox can plug into right field and forget about. Seems easy enough, right? Well, not necessarily. Verdugo, a left-handed hitter, will be replacing the right-handed-hitting Betts. The other two presumptive starting outfielders for Boston, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr., are also lefties. Since the plan for right-handed-hitting J.D. Martinez should be to use him in the field as little as possible, and the rest of the projected bench combining for little-to-zero big league outfield experience, the Betts trade still left Boston in a vulnerable spot where outfield platoons are concerned.

Enter Kevin Pillar. Pillar, 31, agreed to a one-year, $4 million contract with the Red Sox on Thursday, as reported by the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier.

Because of what I’ve outlined above, Pillar is a good fit for the Red Sox as they put the finishing touches on their post-Betts reconstruction in the outfield. He’s a right-handed hitter and a strong defender, able to do just enough at the plate to get by while flying around Fenway’s unconventional outfield.

His underwhelming bat can claim consistency, if nothing else. He’s had a wRC+ between 82 and 89 for the last four years, with his 85 wRC+ in 2019 being right in line with his career average of 86. The specific components of Pillar’s offensive profile have experienced various ups and downs. The positive developments in Pillar’s game in recent years have come in the power department. He set a career high with 21 homers last season, giving him three straight years of 15-plus bombs after hitting a total of just 24 over his first four campaigns. Those 21 homers boosted his slugging percentage to a career-high .432 and his ISO to .173.

That’s an impressive feat given that Pillar wasn’t playing somewhere like Yankee Stadium or Great American Ball Park — he was hitting the ball out at Oracle Park, maybe the most homer-unfriendly stadium in the majors. Not only did Pillar’s 21 home runs tie Mike Yastrzemski for the team lead, they were also tied for the highest single-season total for any Giants player since 2014. It’s a higher single-season total than Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Evan Longoria, or McCutchen have put up as Giants in that same span. And with 11 of his homers coming at home, it isn’t as though he feasted on a few road ballparks, either.

Looming large over Pillar’s power surge, however, is the question of how much last year’s juiced ball bonanza affected it. Because while his numbers in a cavernous home park were impressive, he also didn’t see much of a change in his exit velocity or launch angle from previous seasons. Statcast put his expected slugging at just .407, well below his actual results and much more in line with where his career numbers are.

While the power improvement might or might not be a mirage, the slips in his game have seemed more pronounced and definitive. After years of paltry walk rates, Pillar’s dipped all the way to 2.8% in 2019, the lowest of all qualified hitters. It’s the result of three straight seasons in which his swing rates have skyrocketed.

Kevin Pillar Swing Data
Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Zone% Sw-Str%
2016 37.1% 62.3% 48.9% 47.0% 8.7%
2017 40.1% 67.0% 51.9% 44.0% 7.9%
2018 43.5% 67.9% 53.8% 42.1% 11.3%
2019 48.8% 74.6% 58.6% 38.0% 9.7%

If those numbers continue down their current paths, they’re going to get downright silly. Pillar’s chase rate was already the highest in baseball last season, while his overall swing rate was third-highest, all against pitchers who are throwing him an ever-decreasing number of strikes.

Pillar’s plate discipline and power concerns have always placed a harsh ceiling on what kind of value he can contribute offensively, but because of his defense, that hasn’t stopped him from being a valuable player. Starting with a career-best 3.7 WAR in 2015, Pillar turned in four-straight 2-WAR seasons, and he was worth 1.5 WAR in 2019. That glove is no doubt a major reason why Boston made this signing, but it also adds another question of just how he might fit into this team’s outfield plans.

As good as Pillar’s defensive reputation has been throughout his career, it seems reasonable to say his glove has taken a couple steps back from where it was when he was a mid-20s outfielder in Toronto. After saving 50 runs in center over a three-year span from 2015-17, he was worth -2 DRS there in 2018 and -5 DRS there in 2019. When playing right field, however, he was +2 per DRS in 2019, albeit in a much smaller sample of innings. Statcast’s Outs Above Average was even more bullish on him, rating him at +4 OAA in right versus -2 in center. For comparison, Betts was worth +6 OAA in right field in 2019 — in more than five times as many innings.

If Pillar is now best-suited as a right fielder defensively, then this is pretty simple, right? He and Verdugo can platoon there as long as Pillar is hitting enough. Well, not so fast. If the Red Sox are interested in using Pillar as a platoon option, then their best plan ought to involve subbing him in for the least effective left-handed outfield bat. That’s unlikely to be Verdugo, who actually performed better against lefties last season (121 wRC+) than righties (111 wRC+), and historically hasn’t had much of a platoon split. Instead, it would probably be Bradley Jr., who carried a 101 wRC+ against righties in 2019 with a 67 wRC+ against lefties. A Pillar/Bradley Jr. platoon in center could work if the former’s glove could hold up, but it might benefit the Red Sox more to move Verdugo to center when Pillar is in the lineup after Verdugo was worth +3 DRS there in 2019.

Pillar also blends in well with the other acquisitions the Red Sox have made this winter. After several years of appropriately aggressive behavior on the free agent and trade markets under former general manager Dave Dombrowski, Boston has gone hunting for the cheapest additions it can find this winter. Martín Pérez, Jose Peraza, and Kevin Plawecki have all been brought in for a total of just over $10 million combined, and while none of them are exciting, they do fill potentially big holes on the team’s roster. It’s not enough to keep them competitive, but it might be enough to keep them from completely falling apart.

We hoped you liked reading Red Sox Sign Kevin Pillar to Complete Outfield Reconstruction by Tony Wolfe!

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Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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I wonder why they needed reconstruction

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The devastation of the Civil War