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One Big Question: Can Kevin Pillar learn new tricks?

He’s not old, per se, but he’s been doing what he does for a while now.

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Kevin Pillar.

The Question: Can Kevin Pillar break old habits?

I’m going to be honest, I really struggled coming up with something to write about Pillar. Defense is his calling card, but writing about defense for a player who I know is good but don’t have an everyday experience watching is kind of tough. And on the other side, well, he’s frankly pretty boring. With Pillar being not only a long-time major leaguer at this point but also one who spent the majority of his career in the same division as the Red Sox, I obviously had familiarity with the outfielder. What I don’t think I was familiar with, however, was just how consistent his career has been year to year. Pillar has basically just always been Pillar. If you had a weird dictionary with phrases instead of words and also is like a picture book and there was an entry for “he is who he is,” Pillar’s picture would be there. I guess. He is who he is, is what I’m saying.

The former Blue Jay first became an everyday player north of the border back in 2015, when he impressed with a 94 wRC+ to go with his outstanding defense. By FanGraphs WAR, he was just about a four-win player in 2020. In the four years since then, his wRC+’s have been: 82, 86, 89, and 85, and he has been worth between 1.5 and 2.4 wins by fWAR in those seasons. It’s not just the overall numbers, either. He’s been mostly consistent in the way he’s gotten here, by not walking (he’s walked at least five percent of the time only once in his career) and not striking out (he’s only struck out at least 15.5 percent of the time once since becoming an everyday player). The power has jumped up a bit in recent years, but mostly he’s an aggressive, high-contact hitter without much punch.

So, the question with all of this is simply: Is it too late to change? Pillar is not exactly counting down the days until he can collect Social Security, having just turned 31. He can stick around in this league for a number of years moving forward. That said, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and at a certain point it becomes a lot harder to change who you are. It’s probably not fair to expect a change from Pillar at this point, and the Red Sox can live with what he is given his expected role in 2020 (more on that in a bit). That said, the Red Sox are also at a point on the win curve where they need these little small miracles to get where they want to go. Can Pillar be that small miracle?

If Pillar is going to shift who he is as a player, and specifically as a hitter, the walk rate is the place for it to happen. Again, and I feel obligated to say this very often in this post, it is very unlikely for a player of Pillar’s experience level to change drastically. With that caveat out of the way, there is room for him to change up his plate discipline. Specifically, there is room for him to stop swinging at so many balls out of the zone. Last season, according to FanGraphs, the average major-league hitter swung at 31.6 percent of pitches that ended up out of the zone. Kevin Pillar, again according to FanGraphs, swung at 48.8 percent. Only once in his career has he ever swung at less than 40 percent of pitches out of the zone, and his career rate is 42.1 percent.

This has not gone unnoticed by his peers, either. Going back to 2016, Pillar saw 47 percent of his pitches end up in the strike zone, which is roughly the rate he had seen in the two previous seasons as well. Since 2016, he has seen that zone rate fall to 44 percent, then to 42 percent, then to 38 percent last year. More concerning than that is the fact that, while pitchers have noticed and pinpointed his aggression, he has only gotten more aggressive. His swing rate on pitches out of the zone in 2016 was 37 percent. Since then, as pitchers have hit the zone less, his swing rate on these pitches has jumped to 40 percent, then to 43.5 percent, then to the aforementioned 48.8 percent. That’s not what you want! It’s also how you get to a point where the number you get when you add together his last two seasons’ walk rates (6.3 percent) it’s still more than two percentage points lower than the major-league average in 2019 (8.5 percent).

There’s really no easy way to suggest fixing this, both because it’s sort of ingrained in who he is and also there’s no specific area around the zone he can’t lay off. Pitches up and in get the most of his attention, and historically he’s swung more at pitches above the zone, but over the last two years he has a swing rate of at least 38 percent in all four quadrants out of the zone. As you can see below, it was at least 43 percent in all four zones last year and at least 49 percent in three of them.

via Baseball Savant

So, yeah. I’m not super confident in Pillar walking at some unprecedented rate. Most of the time when I ask these questions I am unsure, but this is one of those times where I am confident that he is who he is, and that’s fine! Pillar is a good defensive outfielder, and ideally a fourth outfielder, which brings me to the real reason we might see better numbers from him in 2020. Pillar may be the same hitter he’s always been, but part of that package is being much better against lefties. Last year, he had a 105 wRC+ against lefties compared to a 78 mark against righties. Over his career, those numbers are 103 and 81, respectively.

Injuries such as the one to Alex Verdugo that will force Pillar into the lineup to start the year will hurt this role, but ideally Pillar should see more lefties on a relative basis than ever before, and that alone should boost his numbers. It would be great if this (not actually that old) dog can learn new tricks, but it’s probably just wishful thinking. Really, the best-case scenario is letting him fill a platoon role while also just focusing on the glove in all of the other situations.