MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

Statcast shows us why Pillar is a defensive wizard

Made 7 catches of balls with .700 or higher expected average, 2nd among CF

Statcast shows us why Pillar is a defensive wizard

Heading into the American League Championship Series (Game 1 on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S.; Sportsnet and RDS in Canada), one of the great advantages the Blue Jays look to have is on defense in center field, where Kevin Pillar holds an enormous edge with the glove over either Tyler Naquin or Rajai Davis.

That'd be true compared to just about any outfielder, obviously. You know Pillar is great, because you've seen the highlights and because you know that over the two full seasons he's spent in center for Toronto, only Kevin Kiermaier and Ender Inciarte have piled up more Defensive Runs Saved than Pillar.

That's a number that can be affected by positioning, however, particularly with the increasing usage of shifts across baseball, and we can do better than that. Since we can use Statcast™ to measure a fielder's starting point and the ball's hang time, we can see how far the fielder had to go in order to catch a ball, and we know how much time he had to do it in -- which is important, as you have far more time to get to a pop fly than a liner, after all.

If we know all that, then we can see how often similar batted balls became outs ... or didn't. Then we can compare the performance of fielders against one another, and that's how we can come up with charts like the one you see below. With increasing hang time on the vertical axis and increasing distance traveled on the horizontal axis, this shows all of Pillar's catches this year in banded "difficulty zones" that show which balls were relatively easy, and which took some serious skill.

Kevin Pillar made plenty of catches considered to be "highlights" in 2016...

Look at all those dots in the two red sections, which are considered to be "highlight" and "tough" catches, based on how often they fall in. As you can see, the relationship between distance traveled and hang time lives on a sliding scale; as hang time increases, the longer the distance traveled must increase to be impressive. When Pillar had 3.4 seconds to go 16 feet to catch a Brandon Guyer liner in April, it didn't register. When he had a nearly identical hang time on Aug. 3 but had to run almost 47 feet to rob Jose Altuve, it absolutely did.

Compare Pillar's distribution of caught balls to that of Adam Jones, selected as a comparison here because he's also an AL East center fielder and because his 1,300 innings played are nearly identical to Pillar's 1,293:

...while most of Adam Jones' catches were of the more routine variety.

Though Jones is a sure-handed fielder, he wasn't able to make as many spectacular plays as Pillar was, and this makes that clear, as there are fewer dots shown in the dark red area. (While it could be read as Jones being below average, it could also be that Pillar is truly elite, or that Jones didn't get as many opportunities to make great plays based on the batted balls their pitching staffs allowed, or a combination of all of it.)

We don't just have to compare Pillar to Jones, though. Let's look at all batted balls to the outfield this year, and look only at ones that were catches 30 percent of the time or fewer. (Also known as "balls with a .700 or higher batting average.") Which center fielders tracked down the most of those high-value batted balls? Guess who ranks very well:

Center fielders with most catches of balls below 30 percent catch rate, 2016:
7 -- Inciarte
6 -- [tie] Pillar / Billy Hamilton / Jackie Bradley Jr.  
5 -- Odubel Herrera

That's an extremely impressive list of center fielders making extremely difficult plays. It probably tells you a bit about how good Inciarte was as well, because while the other players here all had roughly the same amount of innings played, Inciarte played more than 200 fewer innings than Pillar due to injuries and spent time in left as well.

When you take a look at some of these elite Pillar plays, you can pretty easily see why he's regarded so highly. For example, here's Pillar robbing Avisail Garcia in April on a ball that required him to run just over 54 feet in 3.5 seconds, the kind of ball that has only a 10.8 percent catch rate. Yes, that means that batted ball has a .892 batting average, and he still turned it into an out. Meanwhile, Pillar ran the exact same distance to catch a Nolan Arenado fly on June 27, but he had nearly six seconds to do it, and that ball is an out just about 100 percent of the time. Hang time matters.

Pillar's diving catch

Let's look at another one, which happened to come against Jose Ramirez of the same Indians team the Blue Jays will see in the ALCS. Back in July, Pillar had to run over 57 feet in just 3.5 seconds, a similar play to the Garcia ball in distance, hang time and catch percentage. Just over 89 percent of the time, this ball falls for a hit. Not this time:

Statcast: Pillar's clutch grab

We can do this all day. Here's Pillar robbing Carl Crawford, then of the Dodgers, back on May 7, running 79.4 feet in 4.16 seconds -- a ball that is caught just 11.7 percent of the time.

Pillar's brilliant diving catch

One more? One more. On Aug. 25, Pillar ran 65 feet in 3.8 seconds to rob Albert Pujols. Pujols could have expected an out on this play 22.2 percent of the time. If he was upset about finding an 0-for-1 in the box score afterwards, you could understand why:

Statcast: Pillar's diving grab

Now, it should be noted that this doesn't currently take into account the direction a fielder is running in, but it will in the future. It's more difficult to run back for a ball than it is to come in, and future versions of this will account for that. That's going to matter, too.

There's plenty of time for that, though. For now, we can show that Pillar did things in 2016 that no other AL center fielder managed to do. It's something the Cleveland center fielders can't come close to comparing to, at least with their gloves. For the Blue Jays' pitching staff, it's a huge boost at an important spot. For Pillar, it's proof that what you've been seeing over the past two years is real. He is truly, fully elite.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.