Sunday Notes: Tigers, Pillar, Pirates’ Bell, Correa, more

Kevin Pillar is a stud with the glove. The Blue Jays center fielder has 14 Defensive Runs Saved, which ranks him second behind Kevin Kiermaier among fly chasers. Unlike the Rays’ hit robber, he didn’t reach the big leagues because of his defense.

“I got here because I hit well at every level in the minor leagues,” said Pillar, who put up a .322/.364/.477 slash line down on the farm. “My offensive production overshadowed my ability to play defense, but I enjoy playing center field and I enjoy making good plays. I have fun out there.”

He’s certainly been fun to watch. Pillar passes the eye test with flying colors, as evidenced by myriad appearances on highlight reels. But while he’s surprised a lot of people with his Devon White-like play, he hasn’t surprised himself.

“My defense has always been under the radar,” posited Pillar. “Ever since I made the transition from infielder to outfielder in high school, I’ve been pretty good. I play the outfield similar to how I played football. It’s about taking good routes and going to get the ball, whether that means diving, running into a wall, or whatever it might take.”

Watching Pillar play baseball, it comes as no surprise that he played football. The 26-year-old exudes toughness and intensity. He is also dogged in his preparation. A receiver, running back and safety as a California prep, Pillar is quick to credit Tim Leiper, who positions the Toronto outfield.

“We have more defensive schemes than any person outside of our clubhouse would ever imagine,” said Pillar. “Nothing is ever going to be an exact science, but Tim does a helluva job of putting us in the right place. One step in the right direction can make all the difference.”

Pillar’s first step is exemplary, as are his reads. According to Leiper, those attributes are every bit as important as colored dots on a spray chart.

“We come up with general starting points based on statistics, but at the same time, hitters change from pitch to pitch,” explained Leiper. “We trust him to move based on how he reads swings. He’s got great instincts and his jumps are second to none. He’s also fearless – he likes to take chances – and really gets after it.”

Remarkably, teams were reluctant to take a chance on Pillar. Despite a .367 batting average and a 54-game hitting streak at Division II Cal State Dominguez Hills, he lasted until the 979th pick of the 2011 draft.

Blue Jays pitchers are glad he landed where he did. He’s not a star with the stick – he’s hitting .274/.305/.399 – but defensively, he’s a pillar of strength.

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Detroit is in a buy-or-sell crisis. With the non-waiver trade deadline looming, the Tigers are four games behind the Twins for the second wild card, and Miguel Cabrera is out for another three weeks with a calf strain. David Price and Yoenis Cespedes will be free agents at season’s end. Throw in a depleted farm system, and you can see why general manager Dave Dombrowski might have a headache.

With their window of opportunity closing, do they go for it one more time, or do they get what they can for Price and Cespedes and look to the future?

In the opinion of Dan Dickerson, the answer isn’t that simple. Unlike many, the radio voice of the Tigers doesn’t see doom and gloom when he looks at the team’s future.

“The run of division titles may be ending this year, but I don’t think the window is necessarily closing,” said Dickerson. “The national narrative is ‘Take a look at the Phillies; this is the Tigers in a couple of years.’ What people are missing is that the Phillies were an old team after winning a championship. This is by no stretch of the imagination an old team.

“We have a 23-year-old third baseman (Nick Castellanos) who is really starting to hit. We have a 25-year-old shortstop (Jose Iglesias) who is an All-Star. We have a 25-year-old center fielder (Anthony Gose). James McCann is 25 and looks like the catcher of the future. J.D. Martinez is emerging at 27. That’s five starters who are still young, then you’ve got Cabrera, Martinez and Kinsler who are certainly showing they can hit in their 30s.”

Dickerson recognizes there are issues with the farm system, and that pitching depth needs to be addressed. He also sees a lot of money coming off the books and attractive options in the pending free agent market. With all that in mind, does Detroit buy or sell?

“I go back and forth on that every day,” admitted Dickerson. “It’s a unique situation for this team. There is a need for an infusion of young talent, at least on the pitching side, yet we could still catch Minnesota. There’s a lot to weigh over the next week.”

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Cincinnati isn’t in a buy-sell crisis. They’re in full-blown sell mode, or at least they should be. Looking at their roster, they’re a lot closer to the Phillies than the Tigers are.

Billy Hamilton – hitting .230 with a .570 OPS – is six weeks short of his 25th birthday. Devin Mesoraco, currently injured, is 27. Jay Bruce, the epitome of frustration for many Reds fans, will be 29 on opening day. The rest of the lineup will be 30-plus, and reinforcements aren’t coming. As is the case in Detroit, the farm system is lacking. Unlike in Detroit, ownership doesn’t have the resources – or is too stingy – to spend.

Things aren’t pretty in Cincinnati, and that means goodbye Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto. Maybe it means goodbye Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. GM Walt Jocketty waited too long to retool, and no amount of Excedrin can get rid of the problem that created.

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Carlos Correa is on the cusp of stardom at a young age. Two months shy of his 21st birthday, the Astros shortstop is hitting a precocious .292/.337/.532, with 21 extra-base knocks in 154 at bats.

According to manager A.J. Hinch, the youngster is attentive to a fault. After an at bat, or following a game, he’ll often seek “affirmation on what he sees versus what we see.”

“He’ll want to know that his load is on time,” elaborated Hinch. “He’ll want to see if the ball is borderline, in, out, up, down. He’ll want to know what we thought from the side. His front foot in his timing, how high his hands get, how high his load gets… that’s always a point of emphasis for him. He’s very mechanically sound, and very tuned in to his body and how his swing operates.”

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When I talked to Josh Bell two summers ago, the switch-hitting Pirates prospect was fine-tuning his stance. When I talked to him two weeks ago, he was doing much the same.

“Compared to then, I’m maybe a little more narrow,” Bell told me. “I pretty much stand straight up right now, from both sides of the plate. It’s something I talked to my hitting coach about. We made the move about a week ago and I feel I’m in a good spot right now.”

Bell switched positions this year, going from the outfield to first base. The move puts more onus on his home run stroke, which has thus far been underwhelming. The 22-year-old has gone deep 27 times as a professional, including four times in 400 plate appearances this year. He feels the recent tweak could make a difference.

‘When I drop down with my power numbers, it’s because I get out of my legs a little bit,” explained Bell. “I get out of a power position and just use my hands. But with this change, I feel I can power through the ball while still making consistent contact.”

Making consistent contact is something he does well. Bell fans infrequently and is hitting .315/.388/.431 for Double-A Altoona. Despite the relative dearth of dingers, he has an .813 OPS since signing as a second-round pick in 2011.

“There are a few aspects of my game that haven’t really changed from year to year,” said Bell, who ranks as Pittsburgh’s No. 4 prospect. “I try to keep my strikeout rates low and put the ball in play as best I can. That’s pretty constant, no matter what else I do.”

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Earlier this season, I overheard a manager admit he has challenged calls he knew the umpire got right. His reasoning was that the games were getting late and he doesn’t like to leave unused challenges in his back pocket. While there was almost no chance of getting the calls overturned, he had nothing to lose and “anything is possible.”

If a manager asks for a challenge, even a frivolous one, the umpires have no choice but to grant it. Ideally, they should have the right to invoke pace-of-game logic and call BS.

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Meanwhile, what was up with the ground-rule-double call in this past week’s Pirates-Royals game? A ball that hits the fence and bounces over without contacting either the ground or a fielder isn’t a home run?

In this case, the answer is no. To recap, a blast by Starling Marte struck a padded ledge below the top of the fence and caromed up and over, untouched. Originally ruled a home run, it was changed to a ground rule double via a replay challenge. Why? Because the ball was “within the field of play” when it hit the ledge/fence. Per the rulebook, what happened was no different than if the ball had landed on the field and bounced over.

Allow me to invoke “BS” again. The call was technically correct, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense. As for the ledge, I’d love to hear an explanation for why it’s there.

——

The subject of catchers throwing from their knees came up when Brad Ausmus met with the media on Friday. The Tigers manager – a former backstop — isn’t particularly impressed with the feat.

“Ever since Benito Santiago, people get so excited about throwing someone out from their knees,” said Ausmus. “The majority of major league catchers could throw from their knees if they wanted to. Pudge Rodriguez had one of the better arms you’ll ever see on a catcher, and I don’t know that he ever threw from his knees.”

The Tigers manager was particularly impressed with Rodriguez’s feet.

“As great as his arm was, it was his feet that made the difference,” said Ausmus. “The combination of his arm and his feet is what made him such a great thrower. His feet were so quick that when he picked people off, it was almost like they froze. It happened so quickly they were like deer in the headlights and the first baseman had the ball.”

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez will be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2017. With 2,844 hits and 13 Gold Gloves, he’s more than worthy of enshrinement.

——

Alan Trammell belongs in the Hall of Fame. To this point in time – and time is running out in respect to the BBWAA ballot – he remains on the outside looking in. The longtime Tigers shortstop will likely need to rely on the Veterans” Committee to get his just due.

Long before he was a perennial All-Star – and later a manager — Trammell was a fan of the game. As a youngster in California, he daydreamed about baseball. With starry eyes, he imagined himself playing in the big leagues.

Trammell’s “first good glove” was an A2000 Wilson, Ron Santo-model. He got it on his tenth birthday, and 47 years later, he still has it.

Yesterday, I asked the Tigers legend if he remembers when he first saw an Alan Trammell-model glove. His response was indicative of his longstanding love of the game, and the little boy in all of us.

“It was probably some time in the mid ’80s,” Trammell told me. “It was cool. I won’t deny that. It gives you a little extra smile to see something like that.

“I’m kind of visualizing that glove right now. Sometimes I think back to my childhood and all of the dreaming I did. I dreamed about doing this. I’d be back in school and my mind would be drifting, and the teacher would say, ‘Mr. Trammell!, Mr. Trammell!” I’d be, ‘What, what, whoa!” My mind had been in a ballpark somewhere.”

Trammell, who currently serves as a special assistant to Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, is “still living the dream.” Hopefully he’ll one day be living it with a plaque in Cooperstown.

——

Tom Gage was formally presented with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award – for meritorious contributions to baseball writing – in Cooperstown yesterday. The esteemed beat writer covered the Tigers for the Detroit News from 1979-2014.

Prior to the start of the season, and mere days after it was announced that he would be so honored, the Detroit News took Gage off the beat. Shortly thereafter, they cut ties with him entirely.

This doesn’t match the level of stupidity of Tigers management not renewing Ernie Harwell’s contract for the 1992 season (the broadcasting legend was rehired by new ownership a year later), but it’s in the same ballpark.

Congratulations to Tom Gage, a better reporter, and better man, than your former employers seem to have believed.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Craig Biggio (a deserving Hall of Famer) hit .281/.363/.433 and finished his career with 65.8 WAR. Jeff Bagwell hit .297/.408/.540 and had 80.2 WAR

John Smoltz had a 2.41 ERA and a 9.6 K/9 in 242 games as a reliever. Pedro Martinez had a 2.18 ERA and a 10.2 K/9 in 67 games as a reliever. Randy Johnson had a 2.51 ERA and a 9.5 K/9 in 15 games as a reliever.

On this date in 1987, Milwaukee’s Paul Molitor stole second base, third base, and home in the first inning against Oakland.

In 1988, Rafael Belliard had 61 hits. None of them were doubles of home runs. The Pirates shortstop had 57 singles and four triples.

On April 22, 1959, the Chicago White Sox had an 11-run seventh inning against the Kansas City Athletics. They scored the 11 runs on one hit (a single), 10 walks, a HBP and three errors.

Per SABR’s Media Research committee, here is Walter Johnson calling a game between the Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians in 1939.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Noodles
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Noodles

Pillar is 26 not 28 FWIW.