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Defensive Pillar or Offensive Killer?

Kevin Pillar recently announced that he played through a torn thumb for the majority of last season’s second half. I was curious to see how much this injury impacted his offensive production, so I decided to delve into his pre- and post-injury numbers. His elite defense in CF makes him a staple in John Gibbons’ lineup card on a daily basis — but how much would this injury negatively impact his ability to help his team at the plate?

Pillar is best known for his glove, and across the league he is often recognized for his diving catches in the outfield, like this gem.

However, despite him not being one of the Blue Jays’ major offensive contributors, the fact that his defense keeps him in the lineup every day, even when hurt, begs the question: At what point do you start sacrificing offense for stellar defense? Among the CFs who ranked in the top 15 in WAR last season with at least 400 PA, he was the only one with a negative offensive WAR component, at -11.9, which was the seventh-worst offensive WAR component last season for any qualified player. His 2016 wOBA (.295) and wRC+ (80) were identical to Billy Hamilton’s — not exactly the type of player you want to model your bat skills after.

But of course, his defense was incredible, as he led all OFs in defensive WAR (23.6), UZR/150 (26.3) and RngR (21.8). He was the third-best defender measured by WAR, only trailing Brandon Crawford and Francisco Lindor. His total WAR was 3.2 in 2016, and this is despite playing hurt from August 6 onward.

Pillar is an elite defender and a fan favorite — but what can he do offensively to make himself a positive offensive WAR player? First, let’s look at what he did pre-injury. Before August 6, Pillar slashed .261/.292/.385 with 7 HR, a 2.9 BB% and a 15.8 K%. When he returned from his DL stint, still feeling the effects of his torn thumb, he slashed .283/.338/.346 with no homers, but his walk rate was 7.8% and his strikeout rate dropped slightly to 14.2%. This is unfortunately based off a small sample size of 141 PA, and his batting average was inflated by a .333 BABIP, vs. his career mark of .305.

The major change to his output is what you would expect from someone battling a hand injury, and that was a major drop-off in power, as his ISO was cut in half after sustaining the injury. Pillar likes the ball up and in and struggles with pitches down and away. You can see how playing through a thumb injury could really hurt his ability to drive and pull the ball. Below is his pre- and post-injury ISO/P.

 

To further illustrate this point, below are his pull and hard-hit rates for the 2016 season. The line in the graph indicates when he returned from the DL.

 

He pulled the ball more, but was not able to barrel it up and make hard contact due to his thumb injury. He attempted to pull the ball on pitches not in on his hands, as shown by the two heat maps below for his pre- and post-injury swing percentage.

Despite having his setbacks, Pillar was able to post a slightly higher wOBA after his injury (.303 vs. .292), proving that he could still be a productive player, but in a different way. The Blue Jays quite frankly do not need Pillar to hit 15-20 HR and I don’t even think they care if he hits more than 10. Offensively, they need him to get on base more and provide speed on the basepaths. He needs to focus more on hitting line drives and ground balls rather than trying to hit fly balls, considering that last season Pillar had the third-worst batting average on fly balls (min 100 PA) at .139. He has already shown an improvement in changing his approach by decreasing his FB and IFFB rates by around 2.5% from 2015 to 2016.

All current projections on FanGraphs predict that Pillar will have another negative offensive season; however, in a healthy 2015 season he posted an offensive WAR component of 3.2. I believe that it is possible for him to do that again in a healthy 2017, but he needs to make a few adjustments at the plate and needs to stay healthy. This is something that he’s struggled a bit with in his career, as he tends to go all-out in the field.

He should have a better offensive season in 2017 than he did in 2016, and he appears to be healthy in spring training, so far hitting 10-for-20 with 5 doubles, which is promising but not that meaningful. I hope he can continue to make offensive strides this season without any injury setbacks, but expectations should probably be set that the Blue Jays organization and their fans may just need to accept the fact that they have a stud defender, yet not much more than a mediocre hitter.