Kevin Pillar Continues to Be a Defensive Wizard for the Blue Jays
A common belief in the sports world is that defense wins championships.
This happened to ring true last season for the Kansas City Royals, as they were arguably baseball's best defensive unit on their way to winning the World Series. They ranked first in FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 (UZR/150) -- which is a scaled version of UZR to an average number of chances per season -- and Defensive Runs Above Average (Def).
While there were certainly other factors that helped the Royals win it all in 2015, their elite defense was a definite contributor.
The Toronto Blue Jays have not been elite on defense this season, but they do currently rank 10th in team UZR. This is due primarily to their center fielder, Kevin Pillar, who has quickly established a reputation for catching basically anything hit in his direction.
The latest example came on Sunday against Brian Dozier and the Minnesota Twins.
You’re incredible, @KPILLAR4: https://t.co/sWqNWkRo9Dhttps://t.co/hBQjtois7z
— MLB (@MLB) May 22, 2016
Pillar had to react instantly and run an almost-perfect route in order to catch Dozier's drive...and he did. Per Statcast, Pillar's first step took just 0.20 seconds, he reached a max speed of 19.7 miles per hour, and he covered a distance of 85.7 feet. It equaled a 97.3 percent route efficiency and one helluva catch.
However, despite Pillar's ability to go get the ball, he initially didn't get much time roaming center field. He made his big league debut in 2013 but did not make a single appearance in center that season.
In 2014, he finally saw some action there but was limited to just 112 innings. Pillar then began the 2015 season as the Blue Jays' Opening Day left fielder. It didn't last long.
On April 15, 2015, the ninth game in left field for Pillar that season, he made a shocking catch -- in a good way. Just watch.
I forgot to mention that Pillar moonlights as Spider-Man.
Six days later, Pillar added to his rapidly expanding highlight tape, making this catch that resulted in a double play.
This would be the last game he played in left field that season, taking over the center field position for good on April 25th. From that date and through this season so far, Pillar has exclusively played center field for Toronto, and his superb play has more than justified the switch.
From 2015 to today, Pillar owns a 24.3 UZR, a 21.7 UZR/150, a 27.1 Def, and 24 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which all rank second-best among center fielders. When comparing these totals to all players, the lowest Pillar ranks in any of the categories is seventh. His elite defense has helped make him a highly valuable player.
Pillar was good for 4.3 Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) in 2015, which tied for 31st best. In most instances, the value of a top-tier player based on fWAR is heavily influenced by their bat. This was not the case for Pillar, however.
Pillar finished last season with a triple slash of .278/.314/.399, and according to Baseball Reference, the league average hitter in 2015 slashed .254/.317/.405. So, minus batting average, Pillar was below league average as a hitter, something his advanced stats confirm.
His Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) was 93 in 2015, which means Pillar was seven percentage points worse than the league average hitter (100 wRC+). His Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) tells the same story. Pillar posted a .310 wOBA last season, which -- out of 141 qualified hitters -- ranked 102nd.
Among the 35 players with a 4.3 fWAR or better, Pillar's wRC+ ranked last, and only one other player had a wRC+ of less than 108. His wOBA ranked second-worst, and the third-worst player had a total of that was 21 points higher (.331). Pillar also had the worst OPS of the bunch at .399 and was the only hitter with a sub-.418 total.
In other words, the vast majority of his value came from his defense, but he played it at such a high level that he was still able to be ranked among baseball's most valuable.
Pillar's 2016 Season
Pillar is following script so far this season, as he is first among all fielders in UZR/150 (40.4) and Def (11.0) and second in UZR (10.3). This has contributed heavily to a current 1.4 fWAR, which is tied for 37th-best despite a poor slash of .250/.282/.372 with a 76 wRC+ and a .285 wOBA. His wRC+ and wOBA both rank in the bottom-25 of qualified hitters.
However, Pillar's glove is too good to consider benching him for more offense, even if his manager, John Gibbons, seems bored with his exceptional defensive play.
Gibbons was asked about Pillar's catch on Sunday, saying, "We've seen him do it over and over and over. It's really not a big deal for us anymore to watch it." While it wasn't meant in a derogatory manner -- Gibbons finished that quote saying Pillar is a "special outfielder" -- it does go to show that Pillar is turning spectacular plays into ones that are now expected to be routine.
The rest of the Blue Jays fielders will have to step up their game if they want to rely on defense to win a championship, but for now, Pillar is modifying the saying to "defense keeps me on the field."