Free Swingin’: Method Behind the Madness?
By Jay Blue
Blue Jays From Away
There was a conversation on Twitter recently in which someone questioned my belief thatKevin Pillarwould figure things out with the bat at the major league level. The tweeter clarified that he thinks that Pillar has “poor plate discipline.” Pillar has certainly been victimized a lot, especially by right-handed pitching at the major league level, but I don’t think it’s as simple as “poor plate discipline.” Here’s why.
What is “poor plate discipline” after all?
Thanks to Fangraphs and their PITCHf/x data, we can tell you that the major league average player swings at 30.1% of pitches outside of the zone (O-Swing%), 63.1% inside the zone (Z-Swing%) and swings at 46.2% of pitches on average (Swing%).
Let’s look at what I’ll call an elite level of player right now: Edwin Encarnacion. Edwin had a wRC+ of 150 with the Blue Jays in 2014, a wRC+ of 144 in 2013 and was at 150 in 2013. Over the last three years, he’s produced at almost 50% above average (when adjusted for league and park) making him one of the best offensive players in baseball. Encarnacion swung at just 26.1% of pitches outside of the zone, 61.2% inside the zone and 42.9% of pitches overall.
Encarnacion also happens to be one of the few sluggers with a very low strikeout rate. 2014 was his highest strikeout rate over the past three seasons and he K-ed 15.1% of the time where the major league strikeout rate was about 20.4%. Obviously, we can tell from Encarnacion’s stats that what he swung at, he generally hit, posting an 82.3% contact rate, well above the league’s 79.4% rate.
Another, although different kind of elite-level player, Jose Bautista swings even less often, swinging at 22.8% of pitches outside the zone, 59.7% inside the zone. Bautista’s overall contact rate of 81.4% is, again, above league average.
So let’s return to Kevin Pillar. Pillar is obviously not an elite level player and you can see that he swings far more often at pitches outside the strike zone at a 43.5% rate. Inside the zone, he swings at a slightly above-average rate, hacking at 64.0%. Despite that high swing rate and the very high O-Swing%, Pillar’s contact rate is 79.2%, just 0.1% below the league average. So despite his swinging more often than the league average hitter, he’s making contact at about the same rates. Pillar, who struck out 23.0% of the time last year (about 2.6% above league average) also had a higher first-strike percentage than the league average (3.8% above league average) and a higher swinging strike percentage (SwStr%).
For me, the two things that indicate “Poor Plate Discipline” are the swinging strike percentage at 11.4%, two entire percentage points above the league average (9.4%) and the O-Swing% of 43.7%, 12.4% above the league average. In 2014, Kevin Pillar undoubtedly had poor plate discipline. He couldn’t lay off pitches outside the zone and, despite being able to make contact at average rates, struck out at higher than league average rates which isn’t quite so acceptable when you don’t hit for power. The final nail in the “poor plate discipline” coffin for Pillar is his walk rate. Pillar walked only 3.3% of the time with the Blue Jays in 2014 (down from 3.6% in 2014). For a guy with limited home run power, getting on base at a sub-.300 rate is just unacceptable and won’t lead to more playing time at the big league level.
All this data tells us what happened, and yes: poor plate discipline is a problem. Even Brooks Baseball tells us, on their landing page for Pillar, that he has “an exceptionally poor eye” on fastballs, a “poor eye” on breaking pitches but a “very good eye” on offspeed pitches.* Brooks Baseball also tells us that Pillar has “an exceptionally aggressive approach at the plate” against breaking pitches and offspeed pitches while having a “steady approach” against fastballs. Even with Brooks Baseball’s data, Pillar is only more likely to swing and miss against offspeed pitches when compared to major league average than he is against fastballs and breaking pitches. He’s taking a lot of fastballs and is very aggressive against everything else.
So why is he so aggressive? Is there an explanation for his lack of plate discipline? My theory is that Pillar has been so successful throughout his entire baseball career, making very high levels of contact and hitting so well that he has relied on his natural talents and abilities to make hard contact at every level.
In college, he hit .369/.411/.596 in 2011 for Cal State Dominguez Hills and in 2010, he hit .379/.416/.533. In Rookie ball in 2011, he hit .343/.373/.530 and in 2012 in A-ball, he combined to hit .323/.374/.439 with no discernible drop off in batting average when moving up a level mid-season between Lansing and Dunedin. In 2013, at Double-A and Triple-A, Pillar slashed .307/.353/.461 before getting his first major league call up. Pillar went back to Triple-A in 2014 and hit even better: .323/.359/.509, breaking double digits in home runs for the first time in his pro career, hitting 10 dingers and 39 doubles in just 434 plate appearances (in 100 games) for the Bisons.
Pillar’s struggles at the major league level don’t rule out the possibility that he is a Quad-A player or fringe major leaguer; however, when Pillar struggled at the major league level in 2013, hitting .206/.250/.333 over 110 plate appearances, striking out 26.4% of the time, he failed for the first time, possibly ever.
I believe that Pillar reached the limit of his natural talent and ability to hit a baseball hard and failed at the highest level in the world. Pitchers in the major leagues can execute their pitches better than those in the minors. They make fewer mistakes, leaving little margin for error as a hitter. Finally (and possibly most importantly), major league pitchers have an incredible amount of information on every hitter in the league and have the ability to execute pitches that exploit hitters’ weaknesses.
I’m sure you’re screaming “But Pillar doesn’t take any walks!” at your computer screen right now. No, he still doesn’t walk enough — 4.8% in Buffalo and 3.3% in Toronto in 2014 but why? My theory is that Pillar has so much confidence in his ability to make contact — hard contact — that he isn’t as patient as he should be, especially at the major league level.
To get to the major leagues, you have to be a good baseball player. You were probably the best player in your youth league. You were probably the best player in your high school (and possibly the whole high school league). You also have to be a college star, which Kevin Pillar was, setting a NCAA Division-II record by hitting in 54 straight games.
Because of the lower level of competition, Pillar was was still on big league scouts’ radar but was drafted very low — in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft. The kind of success that Pillar has had throughout his whole baseball playing career (plus, perhaps combined with the chip on his shoulder for being overlooked for 31+ rounds of the draft) breeds an extremely high level of self confidence. In baseball, natural ability and self confidence will only take you so far. For Pillar, that took him to the major leagues. And then he failed at the top level of the game. What happens next is crucial for Pillar.
Pillar did two things in 2014 to show me that he’s made some adjustments and will be more productive in the future. First of all, his numbers in Buffalo are far better from 2014 than in 2013. In 2013, Pillar struck out 17.9% of the time (his worst total aside from his brief stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2012) but in 2014, he struck out a miniscule 11.1% of the time. His batting average with the Bisons in 2014 was 24 points higher than it was in 2013, despite having a BABIP that was five points lower. This means that he getting more hits despite getting on less when he put the ball in play. Corresponding to his lower strikeout rate, he was putting the ball into play more often in 2014 than in 2013.
With the Blue Jays, he made very linear progress from 2013 to 2014 and even within the season. The sample sizes are around the same – 110 plate appearances in 2013 and 122 in 2014. Pillar struck out less in 2014, had a higher BABIP and was a completely different hitter when he returned to the Jays in August/September than when he was up in May and June. In May and June, Pillar slashed just .225/.220/.300 and didn’t take one walk in 41 plate appearances yet struck out 11 times (26.8% K%). In August and September, Pillar slashed .289/.333/.447 with both of his home runs, six of his nine doubles and all four of his walks (for a 4.9% walk rate in those two months). He struck out 17 times in 81 plate appearances to give him a 21.0% strikeout rate, just 0.6% above the major league average in 2014.
One final way of looking at things is to look at Kevin Pillar’s projections from 2014 and compare them to what he actually accomplished.** ZEILE had him at .263/.293/.408, ZiPS had him at .258/.291/.368, Steamer had him at .259/.296/.381. Pillar’s actual numbers? .267/.295/.397 which has him right around the level of the projections.
Let’s look at what Steamer is projecting for him for 2015 (ZiPS data doesn’t seem to be available yet for the Blue Jays): .266/.301/.398 with a slightly higher walk rate (4.2%) and a much lower strikeout rate (15.9%). This all figures with a .300 BABIP (right around league average). The question is whether or not it is reasonable to expect this kind of production. I think that, all things being equal, Pillar outperforms that figure. I think his strikeout total will be higher, around 20% but I also think that his BABIP will be higher. Pillar has had a BABIP over .333 for every portion of every season of his minor and major league career except for the 110 plate appearances he had in Toronto in 2013. I’m using over 1900 plate appearances over his major and minor league career with a BABIP over .333 compared to a 110 plate appearances with a BABIP of .257. When you combine the likelihood of a higher BABIP with fewer balls in play due to a higher than projected strikeout ratio, things will probably even out a bit.
The projections are based on Pillar’s performances as a whole. If we want to take the most optimistic view and treat his August/September 2014 numbers as a new baseline, he could have an even better season than the projections are calling for. Just using the Steamer projection numbers though, Pillar is likely to put up slightly below league average offense (wRC+ of 93) while providing good defense when he plays.
Yes, Kevin Pillar has an issue with plate discipline but his aggressiveness comes from a lifetime of success on the baseball field. The first time he was really overmatched for any significant length of time was when he stepped onto a major league field in 2013. It’s going to take some time and Pillar may never get his walk rate up to league-average levels but I do think he’s going to be a productive hitter, hopefully in 2015.
* I’m hesitant to use this data because even Edwin Encarnacion is characterized by Brooks Baseball as having a “poor eye” against fastballs. But for contrast, both he and Jose Bautista are considered to have either a “steady” approach or a “patient” approach on every kind of pitch.
** I’m only using rate stats because no one was really close in predicting the number of at bats he would have.