108: Blue Jays have finally found their (leadoff) man

Give thanks for Kevin Pillar at leadoff - it's about all Jays fans can be thankful for thus far. (Photo: Associated Press via mlb.com)

Give thanks for Kevin Pillar at leadoff - it's about all Jays fans can be thankful for thus far. (Photo: Associated Press via mlb.com)

By Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network


Lets not sugarcoat this thing.

The season thus far has been one big ol’ dumpster fire for the Blue Jays and their fans.

With a 6-14 record, and injuries to just about every good player, there have been few bright spots for biased Toronto journalists like me to write about.

But since I know you’ve been disappointed enough for one year - and yes I’m aware it’s still only April - I thought I’d really dig deep to try and find something positive.

(Chris Coghlan’s leap over St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in Tuesday’s game was pretty damn sweet, however I don’t think I have the chops to write an entire article about it.)

So, ladies and gentleman, in the spirit of positivity I give you your sensational new leadoff man, Mr. Kevin Pillar ...

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Before the start of the season I wrote that Pillar could end up being the Blue Jays “X-Factor” in 2017, the key offensive piece in determining if this lineup has what it takes to make it to their third straight postseason.

And, surprise, surprise, it seems after 20 games that I got that quite wrong:

Kevin Pillar hasn’t just been the team’s X-factor, at this point he’s pretty well been their only factor.  He’s currently hitting .296/.337/.494 with an .831 OPS. 

Out of all Blue Jays players with more than 40 plate appearances, Pillar is second in AVG and OBP, first in OPS, and third in runs scored. His three home runs also tie for the team lead with Kendrys Morales.

Pillar’s 24 hits are tied for seventh-most in the American League heading into Wednesday, and they are by far the most of any Blue Jay (Morales is a distant second with 18). Pillar’s nine extra-base hits - five doubles, one triple, and three home runs - are also tops on the team.

Now those numbers should be enough to moisten the eyes of any Jays fan who’s followed Pillar’s career since he made it to the big leagues in 2013. But his recent offensive success has been that much more encouraging ever since manager John Gibbons moved him to the leadoff spot back on April 14. 

Pillar had two hits against the Baltimore Orioles that day and hasn’t looked back. He’s batted first in the order ever since. 

In his 11 games as the Jays leadoff man this season, Pillar has hit an impressive .333 with a .385 OBP. He has 16 hits over that span, including eight extra-base hits, and has gotten on base at least once in every game.

Although those may look like some vintage Ichiro Suzuki leadoff numbers, the top spot in the order - a spot Pillar has long since coveted - hasn’t always brought success to the Jays centre fielder.

The team has been looking for a true leadoff man for years, and they even experimented putting Pillar there for a brief period last season. However, like that new Bill Nye Netflix series, it all went horribly wrong ...

Pillar hit just .198 and had a .231 OBP in 21 games in the top spot in 2016. 

But, thanks in part to some better plate discipline this season, it seems he’s has made the most of his latest opportunity.

His inability to draw walks, coupled with a tendency to expand the strike-zone (to about the size of the Atlantic at times) has always been a serious knock on his offensive game, no matter where he’s hit in the order.

And sure, he’s still a far cry from being labelled a “patient” hitter, but there’s no denying that there has been significant improvement. His pitches-per-plate-appearance is up slightly from last season, and he’s already drawn four walks in his first 20 games. 

Four walks may seem like an odd stat to brag about (after all, Donaldson, who has played in 11 fewer games than Pillar, has six). But considering the kinds of erratic pitches Pillar was hacking at this time last year (and the year before that), four walks seems like a minor miracle.

In 2016 Pillar didn’t draw his fourth base on balls until May 9th, his 33rd game of the season. In 2015 it took him 28 games.

Furthermore, three of his four walks this season have come leading off an inning, which is exactly what you want from your leadoff man. Even the most casual fan knows that on-base percentage is the most important statistic for any leadoff hitter.

Of course it’s a bonus if they can steal a base or two as well. And even though the Jays are not a big base stealing team, Pillar has led the team in steals the past two years.

So with all that in mind, maybe at long, long last, the Jays have finally found that prototypical leadoff man ...

Although if they don’t find a way to spark some offence soon, maybe you’ll see Pillar hitting fourth.

I mean, after Russell Martin’s start at third base on Tuesday, nothing this team does should surprise you.

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Follow Tyler and #Section108 on Twitter: @TylerJoseph108