Over the offseason, the Atlanta Braves picked up a few solid free agents to contribute to their 2023 team. Though most of these additions contributed to the pitching staff, Alex Anthopoulos went out and added veteran outfielder Kevin Pillar, who ended up settling into a platoon role.
Pillar signed with the Braves as a free agent in January 2023 after spending the 2022 season shuttling back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Pillar signed a non-guaranteed minor league deal with Atlanta that would convert into a $3 million, one-year contract if he made the team out of Spring Training... which he did.
What were the expectations?
Throughout Spring Training, it was never self-evident that Pillar was definitely going to make the team. He benefited from the fact that his competition for right-handed-hitting outfielder, Eli White, still had a minor league option year remaining.
Performance-wise, Pillar’s career largely met the definition of role player: with 10.7 fWAR amassed over nearly 4,000 PAs spanning ten major league seasons, he came to Atlanta as perhaps the quintessential fourth outfielder of today’s game. Aside from a breakout fueled by a great defensive season in 2015, Pillar never even touched the 2.0 fWAR mark in his other nine seasons.
More recently, Pillar had his best-ever offensive season in 2020 with the Red Sox and Rockies, and then a much worse offensive season the next year with the Mets. He raked for the Dodgers’ minor league team in 2022, but didn’t get much of a chance in the majors as he suffered an injury almost immediately upon being promoted. Put that together, and he seemed primed for another fourth/fifth outfielder season once again — a weak batting line (career 87 wRC+ coming into 2023, including a 104 wRC+ with the platoon advantage) and average defense (that is, great in a corner, below-average in center).
Pillar’s 2023 was kind of odd, in that his topline results were fairly bad, but he never really felt like a waste of a roster spot. In 206 PAs, Pillar managed just a 71 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR. He did underhit his xwOBA by nearly .020, but his xwOBA itself was under .300. It’s tempting to point to the fact that he batted against lefties just about as often as righties (111 PAs against lefties, 95 against righties) as a reason for his lack of offensive success, but given that he had just a 90 wRC+ against lefties (and a horrid 49 wRC+ against righties), that’s not much of a consolation. He did manage to post a better xwOBA against lefties (.327, underhitting it by .020), but was again so horrid against righties, even on an inputs basis, that there wasn’t anything to dream on, there.
Still, he held numerous roles throughout the season — Eddie Rosario’s platoon-mate, injury fill-in at all three outfield spots, right-handed pinch-hitter (often for Rosario), and so on.
What went right?
At the risk of dicing up his 200 PAs, here’s something interesting about Pillar: as part of the regular platoon, he raked. To wit:
- Against lefties, playing in left field, 72 of his 206 PAs: .378 wOBA, .391 xwOBA
- Against righties, playing in left field: 57 of his 206 PAs: .259 wOBA, .249 xwOBA
- As an injury fill-in in center or right field: 46 of his 206 PAs: wOBA and xwOBA under .300
- As a pinch-hitter: 31 of his 206 PAs: a single, a homer, and two walks, good for a .138 wOBA. All but two of these PAs were against lefties.
As a pure platoon-mate, Pillar kinda-sorta succeeded wildly, though the sample is very small. As a guy asked to start as an injury fill-in, including but not limited to facing righties, or even pinch-hit against lefties, he was brutal. That’s probably a coincidence moreso than a true reflection of his skillset, but this might be part of the reason his seasonal line seems to be at odds with perceptions.
Going further, a potential positive for Pillar, even if it didn’t show up in his results, was how he seemingly adapted to the Braves’ approach instantly. He nearly posted the best xwOBACON of his career, while his strikeout rate skyrocketed and walk rate plummeted. He was up there hacking: a big gain in z-swing, a big drop in z-contact (and o-contact), way more first pitch swings, you get the idea. He saw large gains in exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate. The damage of these changes to his K/BB ratio was too large to overcome, in aggregate, but suffice to say: he absorbed the Powerpoint.
Because baseball is a silly game, it’s somehow fitting that Pillar’s crowning moment of the season came as a pinch-hitter: this homer off Danny Coulombe turned the game around as he blasted a ball into the second deck. It was the third-biggest WPA play of his career, and his largest since 2016.
Amusingly, Pillar finished the season with 0.48 WPA. That homer was worth 0.48 WPA. Other than that, he broke even. Still, what a homer.
What went wrong?
Given that he only managed 0.1 fWAR, you could say the season kinda-sorta went wrong for Pillar. On a more granular level, you could say that while Pillar understood the assignment the Braves gave him in terms of swinging hard, he didn’t really execute it particularly well. Sacrificing z-contact for power works best when you aren’t giving away strikes by chasing, but Pillar has always been an extreme free swinger, and nothing changed in that regard in 2023. Only two players in baseball had a worse BB/K ratio than Pillar with 200 or more PAs on the year, and that, along with facing too many righties, really did him in.
Here’s another inconsequential thing that went wrong: Pillar’s September 27 was a pretty brutal game for him. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh against former Brave Drew Smyly, with the Braves down by a run, two outs, and runners on second and third. He popped out. Two innings later, the walkoff run was on third with two outs, and he grounded out. The Braves ended up walking it off in ten, but those were a couple of pretty brutal outs that both came on 1-0 counts.
Pillar, like much of the rest of the team, didn’t manage to do much in the NLDS. He appeared in all four games, but managed just two walks to go with three strikeouts and two other outs, while only facing lefties during the series.
Pillar can probably fill a platoon role for someone, but he’s heading into his age-35 season, and seems to be heading towards fifth outfielder territory. He should find a roster to stick on, but there’s clearly no reason to give him any exposure to right-handed pitching at this point. Had the Braves picked up Eddie Rosario’s club option, a reunion may have been in the cards to serve the same role that he did in 2023, but it seems like the Braves are going in a different direction, and it’s not clear whether said direction is going to require a righty-hitting platoon mate.