Kevin Pillar burst onto the scene in 2015, his first as a full-time regular for the Toronto Blue Jays. The former 32nd-round pick was a season-long fixture in the defensive highlight reels. He robbed extra-base hits and home runs on a seemingly nightly basis. Pillar’s defense turned heads in a big way last year, but his offense was quietly good.
Pillar is not a highlight-generating player when it comes to his exploits in the batter’s box and the basepaths. He is, however, solid in all facets of the game. Pillar’s 2015 efforts were worth 5.2 bWAR. Diving into oWAR and dWAR shows that Pillar was worth 2.8 wins above replacement for both offense and defense. The OPS+ of 96 that Pillar gave the Blue Jays last season is not spectacular, but does not account for Pillar’s contributions on the basepaths. Pillar has good speed and instincts on the bases, and slid in successfully on 25 of his 29 stolen base attempts. Overall, he was able to take an extra base 39-percent of the time while aboard.
Having traded Ben Revere, the presumptive leadoff man entering spring training, Pillar has emerged as a candidate to claim the first slot in the Jays’ batting order for 2016. Troy Tulowitzki is not suited for the role, and the only other in-house option is Michael Saunders. Saunders missed most of the 2015 season with a knee injury, and has never been able to fully establish himself as a productive big leaguer. In 562 games, the lefty hitter has produced a .230/.301/.381 line. Saunders does have fair speed, having stolen 21 bases in 2012, but has dealt with injuries for two straight years.
If Saunders and Pillar are the top candidates to hit leadoff for the Blue Jays in 2016, Pillar should emerge as the primary one-hole hitter. Saunders needs to be eased back into big league action and must show he can stay healthy and productive. He has played slightly more than half a season over the past two years. While Saunders may be perceived as a slightly better on-base threat than Pillar, he has not significantly outstripped him in that regard. Saunders should be placed into the bottom of the order, where the pressure is lower, as Pillar was last year.
Kevin Pillar may not be the ideal leadoff hitter or check off all the boxes for what a modern-day leadoff hitter should look like. He is not likely to significantly increase his on-base percentage. Pillar does swing the bat quite frequently at the plate, but he is able to make contact at a high rate while limiting strikeouts. Last year, he made contact at a 91.1-percent clip when swinging at pitches in the strike zone. How Kansas City Royals of him.
For a free-swinging hitter, Kevin Pillar has a fairly discerning eye at the plate. He hits all pitches well, has enough power, and can be a force on the bases. His ability to make contact allows him to be successful in almost any count. Pillar did benefit from hitting in the bottom-third of the lineup, with bases frequently occupied ahead of him. As a tablesetter, he should still benefit from the power hitters to follow. Pillar will continue seeing a steady diet of fastballs out of the leadoff slot because opposing pitchers cannot afford to issue free passes to a speedy player ahead of the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion.
With no better options on the table, the Blue Jays should begin demanding more of Kevin Pillar the hitter in 2016. He’s already proven himself to be one of the most exciting defenders in the league, but his offensive game remains underrated. Given a chance to showcase what he can do out of the leadoff spot, Kevin Pillar will begin to be viewed as a more complete player. The Blue Jays will not miss a beat if John Gibbons pencils him in atop the lineup this season.