Nothing has been announced, but it appears almost certain that the Toronto Blue Jays see Kevin Pillar as their leadoff hitter to start the season. It’s a move that makes either perfect or little sense depending on your point of view.
Sabermetrically-inclined observers would point to last season’s .314 on-base percentage as a mark that makes Pillar an unpalatable choice. Traditionalists see a player with the requisite speed and contact ability to fit the “leadoff man” mould to a tee.
In a vacuum, the former argument is likely stronger than the latter. It’s hard to justify giving Pillar, who has been a below-average offensive contributor to this point in his MLB career, the most at-bats in what projects to be baseball’s best lineup.
However, the situation for the Blue Jays is complicated by a lack of viable alternatives. With Devon Travis injured, Michael Saunders was supposed to compete with Pillar for the role. While he does have table-setting patience, he also has strikeout problems and a career .301 OBP.
Troy Tulowitzki was an another lead-off option worth considering, but he hit only .227/.325/.373 there last season and appeared more at ease in the middle of the lineup where his power plays up.
Sometimes making players comfortable is worth more than the marginal benefits of lineup optimization. The prevailing wisdom says that the third spot in the order is no place for your best hitter, yet for years that's where the Blue Jays have written Jose Bautista's name. When slotted in the more optimal second spot, he's managed an uncharacteristic .237/.328/.439 line in 761 plate appearances. Hitting third, his line is .272/.395/.560.
Pillar is eager to give the leadoff role a try, he's a base-running threat and he puts the ball in play. That is not the most scientific reasoning for giving him the job, but that doesn't make it wrong by default. Even in today's data-driven era of baseball decision-making, contact-and-speed players like Pillar continue to find themselves at the top of lineups around the league.
Last season, 10 players had at least 500 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot. Six of them had below-average walk rates. Only Adam Eaton, Dexter Fowler, Curtis Granderson and Jason Kipnis displayed ideal lead-off patience.
It may be easy to visualize the perfect table setter, with a potent patience-speed combination, but it's far harder to find one. Walks play very well out of the lead-off spot because they are as good as singles to open a game. However, players with the highest walk rates tend to be power hitters that pitchers are looking to work around.
In 2015, among the top 30 players by walk rate, 22 of them had 20 or more home runs and 17 had 25 or more. Only one, Nick Markakis, had fewer than 10 round trippers.
Considering only 41 players managed 25 home runs in total, it's understandable that teams want those bats in the middle of the order. As a result, the players they have put atop their lineups have not been special in terms of their ability to get on base.
|League-Average Position Player||7.8%||.321|
The current offensive climate of baseball lacks Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines-type leadoff prototypes for the most part. Teams are having to make do with players with flawed credentials for the role. With his free-swinging approach Pillar certainly falls into that category, but he's not alone.
Especially given the Blue Jays' dearth of options, using the 27-year-old as their leadoff hitter is not some regressive blunder. It's actually a fairly typical choice. Even if a more outside-the-box option, like Russell Martin, may have deserved a little more consideration, the team will be fine with Pillar.
Having a relatively light-hitting outfielder to take the first at-bat for baseball's best offence certainly isn't ideal, but it is understandable.