Moving Pillar Down is Good, But Doesn’t Help as Much as You’d Think

Twelve short games in to the Blue Jays season, and the Kevin Pillar leadoff experiment is over. As we say during today’s game, and as we learned via Richard Griffin this morning, the Jays have moved Michael Saunders in at the top of the lineup, and have pushed Pillar down to No. 8.

Hooray? Probably.

There’s been an interesting dichotomy of thinking when it has come to the leadoff spot this season. When it was announced in Spring Training that Kevin Pillar would be tried at the position, the general consensus was that it probably wasn’t a good idea. However, after he beat the odds in 2015, and spent part of the offseason working with Bobby Tewksbary, there was some reason for optimism. Not a lot, mind you, but enough that we hadn’t complained Pillar out of the top of the lineup prior to the beginning of the season.

There was some reasoning for that, and it was partially logistical and partially statistical. Logistically, the Blue Jays current 25-man roster does not include a perfect lead off option. As the numbers would have it, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin would be the key options, but neither’s skill set and mindset perfectly fit the role. Then, statistically, while there is a positive difference between the projected runs per game with Michael Saunders vs. Kevin Pillar at the top of the lineup, that difference is marginal. Using Baseball Musing’s lineup analysis tool and PECOTA projections, we can roughly calculate the difference.

With Michael Saunders at leadoff, the Blue Jays lineup is projected to score 5.019 runs per game.

With Kevin Pillar at leadoff, the Blue Jays lineup is projected to score 4.999 runs per game.

Over 162 games, that difference amounts to 3.24 extra runs.

Can those 3.24 runs make a difference? Yes, not a huge one, but baseball games are won on the margins, and this is where context comes in to the equation. Traditionally, that probably wouldn’t lead to many extra wins, but this calculation ignores some of the importance of leverage, and can understate the effect that a lineup change can actually have. Even over these first few weeks, Kevin Pillar has had 15 plate appearances between the 7th and 9th innings (generally high leverage innings), and has gotten on base just once. That problem holds true throughout the rest of the game, as well. In 2016, Josh Donaldson has come up with a man on base just 33.3% of the time. If that sounds low to you, it should. In 2015, No. 2 hitters came up with men on base 41.2% of the time. Ergo, 33.3% is quite bad. Had Saunders been atop the lineup, he probably would have done a little better. More importantly, the team would have put themselves in the best position to succeed.

That’s ultimately what any lineup decision comes down to: does it better set up a team for success? If the answer is yes, barring egos and personal preferences, a team should probably make the change. In this case, even if Michael Saunders falters, there will be nothing to complain about because John Gibbons will have done everything he could have.

Fortunately, this could shortly become a very moot point as the Blue Jays two truer leadoff options look like they could soon make their way back to Toronto. Just this morning, it was announced that Devon Travis will take on-field batting practice for the first time on Monday. Also, Dalton Pompey, who has a career 11.4 BB% in the minors, has made it way back to the field, and had hits in all six of his games.

Regardless of who is leading off, the sooner that the Jays can get to the run scoring heights that they reached in 2015, the better.

Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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1 comment on “Moving Pillar Down is Good, But Doesn’t Help as Much as You’d Think”


I think your #s are off. First of all, ZIPS is a better projection system, and second of all, you aren’t accounting for things like Saunders wouldn’t be leading off vs LHP, so if you use his #s vs RHP, just making that switch bumps up the lineup production significantly. A quick check saw it go up by 4.5-5 runs, which is a big change for a lineup to be honest. And as you pointed out, the #1 hitter comes up in a lot of high leverage spots, not situations you really want Pillar in.

Giving 120-144 extra ABs to Martin & Saunders and taking them away from Pillar can only be a good thing in the long run.

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