When Kevin Pillar got out to an outstanding start his 2017 season, it was easy to believe he was turning a corner.
The 28-year-old outfielder seemed to have a slightly more refined approach and additonal power. By the end of April, he was hitting .301/.339/.505 and had locked down the leadoff spot in the Toronto Blue Jays lineup.
Since then, however, he’s been below-average at the plate by wRC+ in every month, he’s hit just .229/.283/.349 since the All-Star Break and he’s looked like the Pillar of old: a strong defender who’s a bottom-of-the-order type at the plate.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are a few reasons why the Blue Jays have always hoped for more. Pillar put up gaudy offensive numbers throughout the minor leagues, he has excellent bat-to-ball skills, and he’s no slouch when it comes to raw strength.
The most common criticism he receives pertains to an aggressive approach that sees him chasing out of the zone and taking relatively few walks. It’s not an unfair criticism — he would surely be more productive if he got on base more — but Pillar compensates with a low strikeout rate and a low-BB, low-K approach that is far from unworkable.
If you are going to make that productive, though, you need to have either plus power — which Pillar doesn’t — or take advantage of the additional balls in play. In theory, Pillar could fall into the second bucket. It’s easy to imagine him spraying liners and beating out infield hits on the way to a juicy BABIP that lifts his batting average and OBP.
However, in his three seasons as an everyday player that number has never topped .306 and it sits at a modest .273 this year. That’s because he has one under-the-radar flaw at the dish: a strong propensity to pop the ball up.
Over the last three seasons, 88 batters have come to the plate at least 1,500 times — a mark that approximates playing every day and staying healthy each year. One of them (Todd Frazier) has a higher infield fly ball rate than Pillar’s 15.8 percent.
The thing about pop ups is that they’re normally part of a trade-off. If you pop up a lot, it’s typically because you have a big swing designed to hit the ball a long way, and it causes you to get under balls up in the zone from time to time.
Take Jose Bautista — number three on the list of infield fly ball offenders. Bautista takes violent cuts at high pitches and sometimes the result isn’t pretty. Here’s a look at the pitches he’s popped up over the course of his career:
Pillar, on the other hand, is not known for his power, so the payoff isn’t there to justify the popups. Additionally, a large percentage of his infield flies come not from near-misses at the top of the zone, but scooping at low pitches that are unlikely to result in productive fly balls.
The way this actually looks is likely familiar to Blue Jays fans. A good example came during current Buffalo Bison Jeff Beliveau’s first MLB saved with the Rays.
Pillar reaches for a fastball on the lower outside third of the plate and skies it to second base to conclude the kind of play that almost never results in a hit.
It’s the same kind of faulty cut that he showed off against Jeremy Hellickson of the Phillies during spring training.
Now, all hitters take these kind of swings from time to time, but Pillar does it with more consistency — and he’s got the popup rate to prove it. That rate is a serious negative for Pillar, who lacks the prodigious power that normally plays the yin to its yang.
Unless he finds a way to bring it down, it will always be the flaw that prevents his high ball-in-play approach from truly working for him.
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