Rox Run Prevention With Kevin Pillar

One of this past week’s less publicized trades was the deal that sent center fielder Kevin Pillar to the Colorado Rockies. It’s not immediately clear what Boston will receive in return for “Superman” beyond the vague player to be named later distinction (as well as some cash to spend on international amateurs). But what we do know is Pillar will make an immediate impact for a Colorado team hoping to regain a bit of the magic and fortune they got used to in the first few weeks of this season.

The seasons’ first pair of weeks made the Rox out to be serious contenders. More recent contests have resulted in the Rockies losing more (and worse) than they were winning at the onset. Regardless of their true talent, Colorado went shopping on Monday. They acquired Mychal Givens and the aforementioned Kevin Pillar. Both supplementary pieces sure to at the very least aid in halting the slide they find themselves amid right now.

Here, we’ll focus on Kevin Pillar. And there’s a lot to focus on. Most obviously is the career year he’s having. There are a few perspectives one can take here. For one, he’s not really benefited from playing in Fenway Park. Despite being a pull hitter, he’s not added any launch angle to his profile, and thus has been unable to capitalize on the Green Monster’s near yet tall specifications. Having hit four home runs so far, he’s right on track to match his usual level of round-tripper production.

The big change for Pillar is his walk rate. It’s far from elite, but a 6.2% clip marks a career-best, a 3.4% improvement on last year. Developing the ability to take pitches is something that has alluded Kevin going back to his days as a rookie in Toronto, where he was drafted. Every year it seems as though Pillar gets off to a hot start, but this time it looks like he’s finally made lasting adjustments to improve. And those seemingly subtle changes have had ripple effects across his profile.

2019BB%K%BAOBPwOBAwRC+
2-022.25.6.286.444.411160
3-220.017.1.250.400.362128
0-21.431.7.179.201.20424
2020BB%K%BAOBPwOBAwRC+
2-027.327.3.125.364.27163
3-231.318.8.400.625.529239
0-24.334.8.143.217.1771

This reveals a lot about Kevin. The one number that could be most indicative of his changes is his on-base percentage facing a 3-2 count. He’s getting on base 12.5% more often than not in said counts. That’s really good. For context, Major League Baseball holds a .449 on-base percentage this year in 3-2 counts. Interestingly, more batters draw a walk than strikeout – likely a result of pitchers’ unwillingness to go inside the strikezone, fear of extra bases or anything worse than a walk.

So we know Kevin Pillar has made adjustments that have allowed him to ascend to a new level this season. And there’s no need to reiterate what uber hitter-friendly Coors field will do for him – it could turn him into a real beast at the plate. But what will it do for him – and the Rockies – on the other side of the ball? Colorado has allowed more runs than any other team his year yet their pitching staff shows promise.

The Rox’ staff ranks 20th in ERA, however, they improve to 16th in FIP and better yet 8th in xFIP. Surprisingly (for Coors Field), their BABIP and HR/FB% rank 22nd and 23rd respectively. All indicating the club’s arms are doing a really good job preventing runs, or attempting to at least, all things considered.

Cred. Postmedia Files

Thus, come deadline day, why pay twice as much for premium pitching that only goes half as far? This is where the Rockies deserve a lot of credit. They didn’t. Instead, they used some ingenuity and acquired Kevin Pillar. It’s not like they didn’t need outfield depth. Even before David Dahl hit the injured list with lower back soreness, he split time with Garrett Hampson in center field. Both have strong bats with great upside, but defensively they don’t cut it.

Since its inception, David Dahl has generated -1 outs above average, ranking 67th among 117 outfielders. Hampson hasn’t accumulated enough time in the outfield to qualify for outs above average, but his defensive productivity can be assessed with ultimate zone rating. With a hair over 365 innings in the outfield, Hampson has generated a 0.8 UZR, or 2.2 UZR/150. Not bad. And far from unproductive (Dahl stands at -2.3/150 across his career).

However, freeing Hampson from his center field duties allows him to spot for the infield, giving Nolan Arenado or Trevor Story a day of rest while mitigating the offensive opportunity cost. Also, it offers the Rockies the chance to install Garrett full time at second base over struggling Ryan McMahon – adding depth to their lineup.

But back to Pillar who provides a daily starter and defensive rock at center field. Over Hampson, Kevin boasts a UZR three times superior. And his outs above average? 15. Good for 30th. Now, it’s not fair to directly compare Pillar and Dahl’s out above average as it’s a cumulative stat, and Pillar’s played over 5,300 more innings than Dahl. So instead consider a per inning rate:

OAAInnings (OF, Career)OAA/InnOAA/Inn*9 (Game)OAA/Inn*495 (~60 Game Season)
Kevin Pillar157,350.20.00200.01800.99
David Dahl-11,955.1-0.0005-0.0045-0.2475

David Dahl is still a good outfielder. In fact, his outfield jump is superior to Pillar’s. But all things considered, those are significant differences. The difference between Dahl and/or Hampson and Pillar is massive. But just how important is a centre field upgrade for a team like Colorado?

In an attempt to boil it down and simplify things, its 1.25 outs important. That’s what you’re getting in a full 60 game season – at this point, it’s half that. But just when and where that out is made you don’t know. And that’s why you make the upgrade. In a tight ballgame, with runners on or the postseason at steak – you want Superman defending the vast greenery that is center field. His defensive prowess will allow Colorado to limit the productivity of the batted balls they surrender. Pillar will hopefully have some hand in off-setting the Coors Field effect and lowering the Rox’ staff’s BABIP.

But it doesn’t stop there. Let’s take a brief moment to consider the ramifications of removing Garrett Hampson from the outfield. There’s also a defensive benefit to starting Garrett Hampson over Ryan McMahon at second. Hampson has a 0 OAA to McMahon’s -1. Even if the Rockies continue to platoon the pair, they can and should consider the defensive edge that McMahon has demonstrated against lefties and Hampson over righties. It’s minor, insignificant, and really difficult to capitalize on based on most lineups’ mix of handednesses, but it’s there. And again, when you play your home games at Coors Field, you’ll take whatever you can get.

2019, OAAVs LHBVs. RHB
Garret Hampson, 2B-22
Ryan McMahon, 2B1-2

Despite all that, David Dahl should stay in center field. That’s because, among all outfield positions, he’s been most productive up the middle – it’s the only spot he’s avoided a negative UZR. Pillar, however, unlike Dahl, can defend either corner without a negative impact. This allows the Rockies to maximize offensive production without sacrificing potential outs. And based on the two’s recent performance, Garrett Hampson is due to graduate from the utility role (reducing his hours in such a role, at the least) and replace Ryan McMahon at second for good.

At the end of the day, the addition of Kevin Pillar has allowed the Rockies to shore up their outfield, especially defensively. They now have the flexibility to cover any surprise ailments as well as provide rest to guys who need it and assign more concrete roles. His bat also offers depth to the lineup and could become even more dangerous at Coors Field. So long as things start to click for the Rox, they should soon be back to their winning ways.

All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.