Once bitten, twice shy.
Over the years, the goal of becoming a productive major league hitter has been as elusive as catching a cartoon roadrunner for Kevin Pillar. Blue Jays fans know what happened with him last year; the center fielder known pretty much only for his defence looked like he finally turned a corner at the plate.
What nobody realized was that in typical Wile E. Coyote fashion, that corner eventually led him right off the edge of a cliff, plummeting to the bottom with an almost hilarious 150-point dip in his OPS over his last 113 games of the season. He entered the game on May 17th with a healthy .305/.357/.497 slash line, said that stupid slur in a game against the Braves, and hit .236/.277/.367 the rest of the way after returning from his suspension.
Pillar is currently on another tear to begin the season. Going into the Cleveland doubleheader, he was at a 154 wRC+ – much better than the 127 mark he had before last year’s tailspin – through his first 30 games. This time, it prompted even the most optimistic, glass half full, sunshine and rainbows people to remind you to sit back and “just watch.” Of course we want to believe that Pillar is experiencing a really late breakout like his teammate Justin Smoak, but the egg on our face from June to the rest of the year last season is preventing all of that.
So what’s the difference between the start last year and this one? Let’s look at some differences.
Kevin Pillar swung at fewer pitches – especially those outside the zone – to begin the 2017 season and then completely reverted to his old ways after the suspension, going from somebody with near-average plate discipline back to a reckless lumberjack swinging his axe around. And it seems like even though he’s currently hitting well, he’s been more of the latter than the former in that regard this year. The one saving grace for Pillar, though, is that even though he typically chases everything, he doesn’t miss that often, as his 14.8% strikeout rate from 2015-2018 will illustrate.
To illustrate, that’s the 50th lowest K rate over that span among qualified hitters.
But the problem that Pillar has faced hasn’t been his free swinging mentality, it’s the type of balls he’s putting in play. Where he differs from guys like Randal Grichuk, Justin Smoak, and Teoscar Hernandez – all big strikeout guys with power numbers – is that he doesn’t really barrel the ball that well. In both barrels and exit velocity, he’s well outside the top 100 this season even though he’s been raking so far on the young season.
Right now, Pillar’s BABIP is .368, which is quite a bit away from his norm: a mark around the .300 range over the past three seasons. Expecting Pillar to maintain that type of success on balls in play will only result in you being disappointed. Where there is some good news is that there’s one thing that can explain why he has such a great BABIP, and it isn’t just luck: he’s hitting line drives at a rate he hasn’t ever done before. While he may not be getting into that precious barrel zone consistently, he’ll do well if he continues to hit the ball on a line. Even if you don’t have Stanton-type power, consistently hitting a ton of line drives will inflate your slash line, like we’ve been seeing so far.
We’re only a month in so I don’t think a deep dive into this isn’t necessary quite yet, but it will be interesting to see if Pillar falls off a cliff again with extended periods of weak contact. If he keeps it up, he still probably won’t finish with a wRC+ over 130, but he also won’t post a BABIP of .260 resulting in his numbers fall into the abyss like he did last season.
I think there’s some reason to be optimistic here!