So, Kevin Pillar is Probably Leading Off for the Blue Jays

As part of my warm-up for my long run each weekend, I make sure to get a fire tweet off before hitting the road. It’s a good way to have the brain let the body know that it’s time to get that money.

To wit:

That, in response to this:

OK, so it wasn’t a fire tweet. We all have off days. But the unofficial-official determination that Kevin Pillar will bat lead off for the Toronto Blue Jays is a little bit disappointing, and it stands to have an impact not just on his own value but the value of those around him in the lineup.

The obvious winner here is Pillar, who likely would have hit eighth if he hadn’t locked down the top spot in the order. For a guy who played 159 games a season ago, this could be a major boost in plate appearances – Jays lead off hitters got 763 plate appearances a season ago compared to 624 for number nine hitters, a 22.3-percent gain. Even if Pillar sees his workload scaled back to, say, 140 games, he should see a boost from the 628 plate appearances he got a year ago, hitting primarily seventh and eighth.

Even a five-percent boost in plate appearances is notable for a player who broke out with a 12-home run, 25-stolen base season but could have been considered likely to play fewer games in 2016. He ranked 26th among outfielders last year, is the 40th outfielder off the board by NFBC ADP, and is composite ranked 44th by Rotographs, and the market appears to be betting that he can repeat at least some of his success. That’s a reasonable gamble. Pillar’s low double-digit power is legitimate, and despite a severe allergy to taking a walk, he projects to have a strong enough batting average on balls in play to hit north of .270. Hitting atop one of the best lineups in baseball could see him improve on the 76 runs he scored last year.

The biggest question is whether or not Pillar’s going to be asked to run as much this year. He’s always been a solid base-stealer in the minors (a 77.5 percent success rate) and is 26-of-33 in the majors (78.8 percent). Last year, he attempted 29 stolen bases in 198 opportunities, well above the team’s overall rate of one attempt per-20 opportunities. The Jays tasked their lead-off hitters with just 29 stolen base attempts last year, in part because of the personnel leading off (Jose Reyes and Ben Revere ran a fair amount but Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, and Josh Donaldson combined for two attempts in 55 games).

They also limited attempts because the cost of running into an out ahead of Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and now Tulowitzki, is so substantial. The higher the expected home-run environment, the larger the cost of a caught stealing. Pillar’s still well above the projected break-even rate for stolen-base success, but manager John Gibbons may choose to holster that weapon more than he would if Pillar were batting at the bottom of the order.

Pillar probably still goes 10-20, but the Fans projection of 27 stolen bases this year may be a little high. A .275-12-75-60-20 outfielder remains useful.

The OBP is a concern for those in leagues who use it, but it’s only real hindrance in standard formats is keeping Pillar off the bases, where he’d be standing for perhaps the best heart-of-an-order in all of baseball. But hey, he got on base at a .367 clip in 120 plate appearances leading off innings last season, so maybe…nope. That’s almost surely due to small-sample variance and a significantly higher BABIP in those situations, and he put up a .304 OBP overall with the bases empty. He’s not a guy that’s going to get on base much, and he’s not going to see a lot of pitches (3.6 per-plate appearance). There’s little reason for pitchers to change their approach to Pillar with protection, either, unless he becomes noticeably more willing to take a pitch, especially outside of the zone (he has a career 40.1-percent O-Swing rate, high enough that not even an above-average O-Contract rate can really justify it). Related, he’s taken two walks in 35 spring plate appearances.

And that’s where the decision to bat Pillar first hurts a little bit. Donaldson will hit second, and if Pillar produces the .306 OBP that ZiPS projects, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player will hit with one out and nobody on in the first inning 69.4 percent of the time. That is decidedly not nice, no matter what that number may suggest. It also means that Bautista will hit in slightly less favorable runner-out situations, as will Encarnacion after him, and so on, the effect declining the further you go but still noticeable given the exponential gains (and lack of diminishing returns) of stacking high-end hitters.

The macro effect isn’t all that large based on just the lead-off name. Over the course of the season – and perhaps only until (if?) Travis returns to full health and resumes the mantle mid-season – this only comes out to a handful of additional men on base for Donaldson. Jays lead-off hitters only posted a .320 OBP a year ago, too, so it’s not as if Donaldson is suddenly out of the race to retain his Most Valuable Player crown.

What’s a little troubling, though, is that the bottom of the Jays’ order will have two of Justin Smoak, Ryan Goins, or Josh Thole on a given night. Things aren’t so bad when Chris Colabello and Russell Martin start, but some days, ZiPS projects the three hitters in front of Donaldson (Smoak, Goins, Pillar) to get on base 31.3, 28, and 30.6 percent of the time, respectively. Goins got significantly better as the season wore on last year, and this isn’t an everyday setup, but the idea that the leadoff batter only matters once a game goes out the window if the bottom of the order is a little weaker, too.

The Jays didn’t have any perfect options for the spot, but they had better ones, given Pillar’s discipline profile. Dalton Pompey struggled in spring training and is already off to minor league camp, a disappointing but not unexpected turn for the potential on-base-and-speed youngster. Gibbons was pretty clear from the outset that Tulowitzki wasn’t going to spend time in the leadoff spot again, which is probably best for his particular fantasy value. Martin may have never been considered for the spot outside of these pages, but he would have been an intriguing choice…for 130 games, the likely reason Gibbons would rule it out (if he gave it any thought at all).

The presumed loser here, then, is Pillar’s competition for the job in Michael Saunders. The oft-injured combo-outfielder hasn’t really played since 2014 but has been destroying pitchers in spring training to the tune of a 1.066 OPS, and his 2012-2014 seasons create the picture of an interesting lead-off bat. He projects for a .322 OBP by ZiPS, hardly elite but a shade better than Pillar, and he consistently flashed speed prior to his latest injury. Alas, as a lefty, he has two things working against him in Toronto: Occasional off days against southpaws that would have required lineup shuffling, and a reasonable desire to add a left-handed bat with some power in the middle part of the order.

Really, though, Saunders may have won here, or at least come out even. Batting sixth or seventh against righties with this lineup ahead of him, and less cost to stolen-base attempts if his speed remains, should increase his overall fantasy potential slightly. Health is always a concern with him, but he’s barely going inside the top-100 outfielders, and with Pompey gone, he seems poised to start the season with substantial playing time.





Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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tfil05
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tfil05

When I look at the lineup, the Jays don’t have a leadoff hitter, at least until Travis returns. And even then, who knows if he’s up to the task. He looked great last year but it was a small sample size and if I remember correctly, when he did hit in the leadoff spot he struggled. This is all a bit unfortunate given the hitters following the leadoff spot. They may not be able to maximize their offence capability.

Pillars swing looks like it has a bit more balance to it this year and maybe he can make the mentally adjust given the new role. He’ll have to see what pitchers are doing to him. I’m honestly not sure if they’ll pound the zone considering who’s following him or try to get him fishing considering his reputation of being swing happy.

Saunders could be good in the leadoff spot. But those are spring stats you’re citing and he’s a year removed from playing so I’m not sure its the greatest idea to start the season. Maybe a few weeks in if Pillar isn’t cutting it.