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The secret of Kevin Pillar’s swing

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Numbers tell us what he can’t do, but they won’t tell us how he’s been able to help the Giants this season.

Oakland Athletics v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s probably time we acknowledge that Kevin Pillar has been good for the Giants. I’m just not sure how. That .733 OPS of his is not above average, but it’s not terrible; but, it’s also heavily slanted towards slugging percentage. That .289 on base percentage is downright Felizean.

And, hey, if you want to go there, then let’s go there. In Pedro Feliz’s age-30 season of 2005, he hit .250/.295/.422 (.717 OPS) with 20 home runs and 81 RBI. His OPS+ was 85, or 15% worse than the league average hitter in what was the post-peak PED era. He was still a 1.9-win player, according to FanGraphs’ wins above replacement formula. Pillar is at 0.9 in 2019.

Feliz led that 2005 team in home runs (by virtue of an absent Barry Bonds and a diminished Moises Alou) and, overall, was a net contribution to the team thanks largely in part to his defense. Kevin Pillar has basically been Pedro Feliz for the Giants this year, so this post isn’t about lionizing him or elevating him above the fray, it’s to simply wonder just how he’s doing it. He leads the team in home runs and RBI 75% of the way through the season — his 62 is already greater than last year’s RBI leader, Andrew McCutchen (55) and just 15 away from besting Brandon Crawford’s 77 RBI in 2017 — and since June 1st, he hasn’t gone more than five games without an extra base hit.

You’ve watched his at bats. He doesn’t hit every mistake, he doesn’t have any idea what pitch is coming next, he doesn’t even really seem to make any adjustments. And yet, he’s able to hit the ball hard with some consistency... although, not above league average. His Statcast numbers are pedestrian: 31% hard hit rate (league average is 34.4%), 86.5 mph average exit velocity (league average: 87.5 mph), and a 5.2% barrel rate (6.3% for the league).

Here’s the league’s swing % profile — that is, the percentage of swings in certain hitting zones. You’ll note that Statcast has a much more detailed zone grid than MLB Gameday’s 3x3 tracker.

Keep in mind, this grid also includes outcomes for left-handed batters. Here’s Pillar’s:

If that’s too small to read, here’s the summary: in this 9x8 grid, there are only 9 spots of the recorded pitch thrown zone where Pillar did not swing. Basically, the only pitches he hasn’t swung at this season were ones thrown at his head and feet and ones thrown at the end of the other batter’s box.

But his relative success isn’t luck. Or, it’s not just luck. There’s a skill component here that I think we can see but not adequately measure, and that’s his bat speed. Statcast used to have it, but now it’s no longer available. That doesn’t mean Statcast and the various computer tracking systems available to MLB and its 30 clubs don’t track it, it’s that they would just rather not let the public have that information.

Why? There could be many reasons. Maybe the players don’t want that information out there because it’s an obvious indicator of decline. Maybe the teams don’t want that information out there because they don’t want players knowing that information and trying to use it against them in an negotiation. Maybe the tracking tech has too much volatility or can very easily lose context — for instance, would it cost too much to make the free public database filter out “non-competitive swings” like bunts or check swings? — simply doesn’t mesh with how the rest of the industry prefers to use check swing speed.

But teams monitor it.

You can read this article about some of the science involved in measuring swing speed and its value or check out this Driveline Baseball blog post showing the connection between bat speed and exit velocity:

These are the aspects that directly create exit velocity in a batted ball:

* bat speed

* mass of the bat

* pitch speed

* collision efficiency (hitting the ball on the sweet spot)

That first link goes to a post by Blast Motion, a motion tracking biomeasure tech company that tells us a little bit more about the “sweet spot” of a bat:

“That’s where the best hitters want to make contact, that ‘sweet spot,’ but in reality, it’s not a spot,” [...] It’s actually an area along the bat that’s approximately two inches in length. You can make contact anywhere along that area, and the ball will rebound and come off as fast as possible.”

[...]

“Let’s say that at an average Major League Baseball swing is 70 miles per hour, if you hit an inch further towards the hands from that sweet spot, you could lose 2.5 miles per hour [...] If you hit an inch further down the bat, it could be an additional 2.5 miles per hour. So you’re looking at around a 5 mile per hour difference in the sweet spot or sweet zone of the bat, depending on where you hit it.”

Higher bat speed suggests a boost in the odds of getting some part of that two-inch spot to meet the ball before it hits the catcher’s mitt. At least, that’s what an eye test tells me.

Take a look at these swings and tell me that getting the barrel of the bat to the ball quickly did not have anything to do with these hits:

Pillar does not check any of the boxes for a high quality major league hitter, and yet, as Driveline notes, “the relationship between bat speed and true talent is fairly similar to the relationship between fastball velocity and various talent estimators for pitchers.”

So, think of him as a Jonathan Sanchez-Tyler Beede type. He’s got eye opening bat speed, to the extent that he’s in the top 30 of MLB in terms of contact rate at 82.4%. That tracks. The guy has no strike zone judgment, but a quick bat can compensate for that.

He’s just behind Mike Trout, who has an 82.6% contact rate, but don’t get any ideas. His contact rate has held steady over the past three seasons — he’s 70th in MLB with an 82.2% contact rate since the start of 2016 — but so has everything else.

He also swings and misses a lot and he doesn’t take walks and he’s in a new league where most pitchers aren’t familiar with him, but his preexisting skill set has only allowed him to take advantage of the situation and it would appear that in doing so, he’s reached the peak of his powers... just when the Giants have needed it most.