Like many, I predicted exactly none of these things to happen in 2017. If someone told me back on Opening Day that even one of these things would transpire within the first six weeks of the season, I would say “have another”.
But lo and behold, nearly one-quarter of the way through the 2017 campaign, and several Blue Jays players are defying odds: namely Kevin Pillar, Justin Smoak and Ryan Tepera.
So, six weeks into the 2017 season, here are my Blue Jays retractions. I was happily wrong about the projections for each one of these players.
Kevin Pillar might actually be good
In Spring Training, Kevin Pillar vowed to be a better hitter – a more patient hitter. People rolled their eyes that game in Spring when Pillar did nothing but lay down bunts. It felt like a gimmick – some sort of weird baseball experiment, but perhaps it was all part of Pillar’s plan.
Six weeks later and not only has Pillar been a much more patient hitter, but he’s been the Blue Jays’ best overall hitter. Pillar is chasing less pitches out of the zone (only 34%) and making more contact on quality pitches within the strike zone (95.3%).
At the beginning of the season, I assumed Pillar would see some time in the leadoff spot simply because the Jays didn’t have any better options. With Devon Travis’ struggles early on, there hasn’t been a better fit for the top of the order than Pillar himself.
Pillar batted first in the order back on April 14th and hasn’t looked back as the Blue Jays’ new leadoff hitter. He isn’t the prototypical “on base machine” most would employ in that position, but it’s been working thus far for the Blue Jays.
I honestly thought that Pillar’s 2015 season was his ceiling; a campaign where he put up career highs across the board and racked up 4.3 WAR. But at his current pace of play, Pillar could easily surpass those totals in 2017.
Pillar has always been an elite defender, but the question has always been whether he can hit well enough to sustain himself as an everyday player. It may only be a six-week sample size, but if this early-season turnaround is any indication, the answer is “yes”.
Justin Smoak might actually be good, too
All through Spring Training, I wondered why on earth the Blue Jays’ front office had so much faith in Justin Smoak. At every turn, either Ross Atkins or Mark Shapiro lauded Smoak as the team’s everyday first baseman. In response, the fan base collectively went “huh”?
But given the chance to nearly every game (Smoak has started all but six of the Blue Jays’ 36 games), Smoak has flourished. Not only that, but with the slew of injuries to the Blue Jays’ starters, Smoak has moved his way up to hitting fourth and fifth in the batting order.
Smoak is actually walking at a rate less than his career average, but to combat that, he’s striking out way less than normal. At this rate, Smoak will likely strike out over 100 times this season, but the big difference is this year he’s putting more balls in play.
The weird thing about Smoak’s six-week run thus far has been his tremendous power against lefties when he hits right-handed. Traditionally, Smoak has hit most of his home runs from the left side of the plate against righties, not vice versa.
Right now, Smoak is OPS’ing 1.344 batting right-handed against lefties as opposed to OPS’ing .660 batting left-handed against righties.
I’m not quite ready to say the Justin Smoak contract is a bargain (there is another year on it, plus a club option for 2019), but in retrospect, Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro may have known what they were doing by tabling that extension to Justin Smoak.
Oh Hey, there’s Ryan Tepera, Who Also Might Be Good
Ryan Tepera – this is one reliever I probably wrote off way too soon. In the past, Tepera has been the mop-up guy or the multi-inning reliever (often in blowout games) and often the reliever to shuttle back-and-forth between Buffalo and Toronto.
In 2015 and 2016, Tepera didn’t have many opportunities to pitch in high leverage situations. This year, Tepera is slowing making his way up the Blue Jays bullpen ranks, dare I say even the third or fourth best reliever in the bullpen right now?
On two occasions already, Tepera has been tasked with pitching three or more innings in a game. On both of those occasions, he completely shut down the opposition.
I don’t know if Tepera will eventually slot into the setup role in the bullpen, but he’s definitely inched his way into “Gibby’s circle of trust”. In an ever-changing bullpen, it really is crucial to have three-to-four trustworthy arms for those medium-to-high leverage situations.