Examining Kevin Pillar's Postseason Impact on the Toronto Blue Jays
In order for the Toronto Blue Jays to make it to the American League Championship Series, you knew that one of their stars would come up big. In coming back to defeat the Texas Rangers in the division series, that was certainly true.
Jose Bautista launched a bat flip for the ages -- and may have also hit a home run or something. Marcus Stroman backed up John Gibbons' decision to start him by holding the Rangers at bay in Game 5. Even Chris Colabello logged three extra-base hits in the series.
Despite that, possibly no hitter in the lineup has elevated his game more from the regular season than Kevin Pillar. Pillar punched a double, stole a base, and scored twice Monday night as the Blue Jays pulled within one game of the Kansas City Royals. In doing so, Pillar now has five extra-base hits in the postseason, more than any other player on the team. Where did this come from?
Let's take a look at what Pillar did during the regular season so we can see why -- although this performance was still unexpected -- maybe we should have known he was capable of a big-time output.
A Respectable Regular Season
If I had told you prior to the playoffs that Pillar would be a guy making an impact, you would assume he would be doing so with his glove. After all, Pillar had the third highest UZR/150 of all qualified center fielders, and he is well known for making the impossible look disturbingly routine. At the same time, he showed some stick skills that may have surprised some.
Now, I want to preface this by saying that I'm not trying to over-inflate what Pillar did during the regular season. This guy's main value -- by a huge margin -- is with his defense. I'm just trying to show that he's totally competent and not necessarily your run-of-the-mill eight-hole hitter.
The big thing that Pillar provides is contact. He struck out in only 13.5 percent of his plate appearances, the lowest on the team for guys who were with the squad the whole year. He didn't necessarily strike the ball hard with a 24.7 hard-hit rate, but at least he was giving himself a chance by putting the ball in play.
Additionally, Pillar showed that -- despite soft contact -- he could still get extra-base hits. He finished the year with 31 doubles and 12 home runs. Considering he had 628 plate appearances, those aren't breath-taking numbers, but they'll get the job done when you're as good defensively as he is.
Pillar was able to do this by simply giving himself a chance for extra bases. He finished the season with a fly-ball rate of 36.7 percent, greater than the league average of 33.8 percent and much greater than the average of a center fielder at 32.0 percent. While this leads to a lower batting average on balls in play than Pillar's speed would normally permit, it also gives him a boost in his slugging percentage that can help make up for any losses elsewhere.
It's this increased fly-ball rate that allows Pillar to do things like he has done in the playoffs. When you put the ball in the air, your odds of an extra-base hit go up. When you have a low hard-hit rate like Pillar does, your long-term numbers are going to sag, but you can go on spurts like he has and rack up some extra-base hits. We saw him to the same thing in June, when he slashed .365/.380/.531 with 4 dingers. It's not sustainable, but it can lead to productive outbursts, as we have seen from Pillar in the playoffs.
What Pillar's Impact Means
In the postseason, Pillar has done his fair share of damage. He sports a .313/.333/.531 slash with 4 doubles, 1 home run, 1 stolen base, and 6 runs scored. He is one of only three Toronto players with a postseason slugging percentage above .500, alongside Colabello and Josh Donaldson. And while I'd argue that Colabello has had the larger impact on the series, it's hard to overlook Pillar's role.
Pillar is hitting in the eighth spot of the order. Normally, that's a fairly low-leverage spot where you put guys you don't want to be liabilities. However, it has been Pillar who has essentially been serving mop-up duty there with some of the batters in front of him working through some struggles.
Since Colabello was moved up to the five hole, Pillar has largely been hitting behind Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. Those two are a combined 9-for-53 (.170 batting average) with 3 doubles and 2 home runs. Tulowitzki has come through with a couple of big jacks, but those two have largely been disappointing.
Pillar then is one of the last lines of defense in trying to bring around any base runners in the middle of the order. If he were struggling as much as Tulowitzki or Martin, then there would be a lot of rallies that would collapse after Colabello's spot in the order. Instead, Pillar's bat gives them another hitter lower in the order that can act as a threat. When you've got so much danger near the top, any additional bump near the bottom is a detriment to the opposition.
When you add in the always-stellar defense and the base-stealing abilities, Pillar's value to the team becomes pretty obvious. He finished the season with 4.3 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement for a reason, and all of those reasons are coming through here in the playoffs.
Pillar is never going to have the same bat as Donaldson or instill the same fear as Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. He also doesn't need to. The Blue Jays just need him to play great defense, run the bases like a mad man, and occasionally let that stick come through when they need it. And on all accounts, Pillar has met and exceeded those expectations.