Since 2015, Kevin Pillar has made a name for himself as an outfielder who isn’t afraid to crash into walls, dive through the air, climb fences and jump into brick walls to secure outs. To the amazement of fans, the Blue Jays’ centre fielder often executes seemingly impossible plays.
Pillar passes the eye test as a Gold Glove-calibre defender. In today’s era of advanced defensive metrics, defenders can no longer get by on reputation alone; they need to back it up with numbers.
That’s not to say Pillar isn’t a pretty good outfielder, but he shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt solely on the eye test. Yes, he made several highlight reel plays in 2017, but was his defense “elite”?
Combing through the numbers, it becomes quickly apparent; Pillar not only wasn’t the best defensive centre fielder in the American League in 2017, his numbers actually slipped relative to his past two years in the outfield.
Kevin Pillar Defensive Stats (2015-2017)
|AVG Start Distance||309||317||320|
|Outs Above Average||N/A||15||-2|
|5 Star Catches||N/A||9||0|
|4 Star Catches||N/A||16||4|
The degree if difficulty on many of Pillar’s highlight reel catches may look high, but according to Statcast and Baseball Savant, he came up with very few high-degree difficulty catches in 2017.
Pillar came up with zero 5-star catches this past season and four 4-star catches. Compare that to 2016 when Pillar made nine 5-star catches and 16 4-star catches.
After digging into those Baseball Savant numbers, I also reached out to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, who wrote extensively about how baseball’s best defenders often make very difficult plays look incredibly easy.
“Kevin Pillar may be the most exciting outfielder in baseball; if there was a metric for ‘cool-looking plays,’ he’d most likely lead the sport in that category.
But the advanced defensive metrics don’t give extra credit for whether a play “looks great” or not, and even if they did, the most basic stat of all, putouts, shows he’s just not making as many plays as he did last year or the year before.”
In relation to those putouts, the numbers of plays Pillar made in centre field in 2017 are almost 100 less compared to a few seasons ago. That’s not entirely his fault, though; he can’t control the number of balls hit to the outfield, plus his outfield positioning may have something to do with it.
Pillar spoke to Israel Fehr at The Athletic about playing deeper in centre field this year, and going by Baseball Savant’s data, Pillar’s average centre field depth in 2017 was 320 feet as opposed to 317 feet in 2016. In 2015, Pillar was playing even shallower; around 309 feet.
I will give Pillar credit for this; off his feet, he’s baseball’s most exciting outfielder. He plays the outfield like a wide reciever jumping into the end zone for a touchdown. That may be exciting on TV, but an outfielder with a slightly faster foot speed makes that exact same play without having to leave his feet. A routine running catch may not make the Plays of the Week, but it’s an out all the same.
Are these catches that difficult, or does he just make them look that difficult? Not that I’m accusing Pillar of making TV dives, but is it often necessary to leave his feet; or can that be fixed by taking a better route to the ball or just running faster?
Buxton was Pillar’s stiffest competition for the hardware in centre field this year. Judging by the numbers, the Twins’ centre fielder looks like a slam dunk to take home the Gold Glove over Pillar.
Kevin Pillar vs Byron Buxton (2017)
|Player||DRS||UZR||SDI||OAA||5 Star||4 Star|
Plus, there’s an interesting wrinkle to the Gold Glove Awards; there’s a line at the bottom of the Gold Glove Selection Criteria page which says “Rawlings Gold Glove Awards are calculated based on a combination of managers/coaches and SABR”.
SABR uses their proprietary SABR Defensive Index (SDI) which aggregates several numbers to give a defender an overall number. They didn’t release the final 2017 SDI numbers, but at last check on August 31st, Buxton was miles ahead of Pillar in SDI at 18.2 to 4.1.
Buxton eclipsed Pillar in every defensive category, and while Pillar has gained a reputation as an elite defender, the numbers say otherwise.
Even if Pillar garners plenty of votes from managers and coaches, it’s difficult to envision him overtaking Buxton as the AL’s best centre fielder in 2017. Without superior numbers, Pillar’s reputation alone won’t be enough for him to win the Gold Glove over Buxton.