How Kevin Pillar Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plate Discipline

DUNEDIN – Compared to years past, the Blue Jays Spring Training camp this season has been relatively quiet. There have been no outlandish contract demands from star players, no soul-crushing injuries to fan favourites, and no prospects taking everybody by surprise. That’s probably a good thing. Spring Training narratives tend to be distractions for players, and nobody has ever benefited in baseball from being distracted. But if there has been one story that has made waves in this six week war of attrition, it has been Kevin Pillar’s decision to stop swinging. To put it simply, Kevin Pillar has been offering at an inordinate amount of pitches that he shouldn’t have been over the course of his big league career. That lack of discipline has been impacting his total offensive value, hampering him to the tune of a career .244 TAv.

Pillar was determined to change that aspect of his game. I’ve been tracking his plate appearances this spring, and he has had incredible results: In a total of 36 plate appearances tracked, Pillar has swung at just 16.7 percent of pitches he has seen outside the zone, or over 13 percentage points below league average and over 22 percentage points below his career average. That’s a change of over four standard deviations! On pitches in the zone, Pillar has swung at 55.2 percent of them, about 10 points below the league average and eight percentage points below his career average. I spoke to him about the change before the Blue Jays headed to Clearwater on Tuesday afternoon for their tilt with the Phillies, and he said that “[he’s] been doing the same thing for a couple of years, and [hasn’t] gotten results, so [he] needed to make a change.”

This was all Pillar’s doing, as well. He did some “research and self-evaluation through the internet”, which showed him that he “made a lot of soft contact, and also a lot of hard contact.” He interpreted this data in the following way.

“When I stayed in the zone and I got my pitch, I hit it well, and if I expanded the zone, I didn’t make hard contact. That led me to a lot of soft outs.”

I didn’t expect him to say that he had instigated the altered approach; the club employs many data analysts, scouts, and coaches whose job is to bring out the best in their players, but instead it was Pillar himself. Why? It’s as simple as accountability and responsibility:

“I’m the individual. I’ve got to be the one who wants to make the change. So, it was me doing some research, and reaching out to Brook [Jacoby], and meeting with him in the off-season. It’s something I am comfortable with, and something that I know is right, and I know will take me to the next level of my game.”

As a fan, it’s very easy to wonder why it took Pillar so long to be more selective. He’s been a professional hitter for over six seasons. How hard can it be to identify a bad pitch, and then not swing? Well, Pillar says that wasn’t his problem.

It’s never been an issue of identifying for me. It’s been an issue of just wanting to swing the bat. Not being selective or waiting for my pitch. It was more the issue of swinging at any strike that was thrown up there, or [any] borderline pitch.”

That gives reason to believe that this approach change will actually last. Pillar now knows what is right, and that while he used to just want to swing, he is fine now with holding back more often. Why does Pillar think this will endure throughout the regular season? While he knows it can be hard to predict the future in this game, this is what the Toronto outfielder had to say:

“That’s the million dollar question…I just kind of feel like it’s who I am now, and it’s a part of me. It’s just a matter of going out there and being consistent with it, and understanding that the way I view success is a little bit different now.”

That last part is particularly interesting. When we talk about the physical and statistical aspects of sports, it is usually to the neglect of the mental side. Yet here it is on full display; Pillar had to change his personal definition of big league success before he was able to change anything about his play. Without that internal shift, none of this is possible.

That success isn’t going to manifest itself in just laying off of pitches way out of the zone, though. As the data from spring training confirms, Pillar wants to lay off pitches in the zone as well, and his studies this off-season reflect that, as he said that a big part of it “was just learning how to be disciplined enough to hold off [on] pitches that may be good pitches but not the ones I’m looking for.”

“It’s never been an issue of identifying for me. It’s been an issue of just wanting to swing the bat.”

What practical difference does that make? Well, a lot of it is about having two strikes in the count, and the shift in the attack strategy that usually occurs for batters at that moment.

“There is a process in the way you get to two strikes. I might see a breaking ball early, even though I’m not looking for it. The pitcher gives me a lot of information… A lot of times I feel comfortable getting to two strikes because I’ve seen a couple of different pitches that they have, and it has given me information on where I need to see stuff starting [in the pitcher’s delivery] in order to lay off bad pitches.”

So where does this all leave Pillar heading into the season? Well, plate discipline data usually takes 50 plate appearances to become reliable, and the tracker only includes 36 tracked plate appearances to this point. 14 additional plate appearances with a reversed trend could skew the data back to his career norms, but the numbers don’t really matter in this case, at least to me. They are just there to reinforce everything Pillar has said. He ended our interview by revealing his goal for 2017:

“Just stay with my process that I’ve worked on all spring training, understand that it is right, and judge myself off of my approach, rather than results – live and die with that the whole year. I really need to think about [the] team first, and understand that if I’m out there and playing, and can stay healthy, I give [the team] a better chance to win a World Series.”

Yogi Berra once said that baseball is 90 percent mental. Plate discipline is exactly the same. Pillar said he wanted to make a change this spring, so he made it. There is no reason to believe he’ll revert to his former self just because the calendar says April on it instead of March.

Lead Photo: © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Thanks to @dylcoch for all of his help with the tracker this spring. 

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