Although strikeouts are at an all-time high, Kevin Pillar has continued to make consistent contact. Pillar’s swinging-strike rate is 8.0%, the 115th highest mark out of 158 qualified major-league hitters. What makes Pillar interesting, however, is that he is near the top of the O-Swing% list (the percent of pitches outside the zone that a batter swings at), where he ranks 15th in the majors with a mark of 38.1%. A low swinging-strike rate and high O-Swing% is an odd combination to have; it means that Pillar is making more contact than most, despite swinging at more would-be balls than most. It also means that he’s putting in play a lot of bad pitches to hit. Although some hitters are notoriously good at hitting pitches out of the zone (Vladimir Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval come to mind), Kevin Pillar is not, and it’s leading to a lot of weak contact for him.
Pillar’s 27.9 Hard% ranks 141st in the majors. His 21.9 Soft% ranks as the 20th highest. Here are Pillar’s average exit velocity, wOBA, and expected wOBA on balls in play, split into pitches in the zone and out of the zone (courtesy of Baseball Savant):
|In Zone||Out of Zone|
Clearly, Pillar’s weak contact is mostly coming on pitches out of the zone. I used Brooks Baseball’s zone charts to figure out exactly what pitches Pillar is chasing and hitting weakly. The main culprits appear to be fastballs in off the plate and fastballs above the zone. He swings at these pitches 46.6% of the time and whiffs with only 11.5% of his swings. Here you can see how often he swings at fastballs in each location; here you can see how often he whiffs at them.
According to Baseball Savant, he has an average exit velocity of 73.1 mph, a .224 wOBA, and a .223 xwOBA on fastballs that are in, up, or both. For comparison, on all fastballs, he has an average exit velocity of 85.4 mph, a .302 wOBA, and a .332 xwOBA. Pillar is not only chasing fastballs out of the zone, but he’s putting them in play with regularity. This would not be a problem if he was squaring these balls up, but he’s actually one of the worst hitters in the majors when he puts these pitches in play. Out of the 135 right-handed hitters who have put at least 25 fastballs up and/or in in play, Kevin Pillar ranks 126th in xwOBA. Meanwhile, only 15 other hitters have put more of these pitches in play.
Pillar’s biggest issue is his pitch selection. He not only swings at a lot of pitches out of the zone, but he swings at pitches that he is especially bad at hitting. However, his ability to make contact on these pitches also seems to be hurting him. Most hitters that chase pitches out of the zone as often as Pillar swing and miss much more often than Pillar does. So when they swing at a pitch out of the zone, it often only costs them a strike. Because Pillar tends to put these pitches in play with weak contact, it generally costs him an out. In fact, this is one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many hitters swing out of their shoes. Of course, part of the reason is a new emphasis on power and the belief that a strikeout is no worse than any other kind of out. But another reason is that with fewer than two strikes, swinging and missing is preferable to putting the ball in play weakly and making an out. Hitters certainly don’t come up to bat trying to swing and miss, but with fewer than two strikes, they would much rather swing and miss than make an out.
Now, I am not suggesting that Kevin Pillar should swing harder. Swinging harder would also lead to more swings and misses on pitches in the zone, which he currently hits very well. The best thing Pillar could do is lower his chase rate, as this would improve the quality of contact he makes while also putting him in more hitter-friendly counts. Of course, this is much easier said than done. While I am not going to try to predict the hitter that Pillar would be if he swung and missed more often — and I definitely won’t try to argue that he should try to miss when he swings — we can at least learn from Pillar that although contact is a good skill to have, it is not very useful without good pitch selection.