It’s around this time that baseball fans start to debate which players are worthy of which award. For Blue Jays fans, one name has notoriously been left off, but was it for good reason?
No matter how good his defence actually is, Kevin Pillar will always be special for Blue Jays fans. He was historically spectacular in centre field over the past few seasons, and his diving plays were on the highlight reel so often they ceased to surprise baseball fans when they saw them. Simply put, he was one of, if not, the best in baseball.
Recently, the list of 2018 Gold Glove Award nominees was released, and Kevin Pillar’s name was not included. For some, it was no surprise at all. For others, it was shocking. This begs the question, was Pillar snubbed? Or was the decision to leave him off the result of legitimate statistical analysis?
In terms of defensive metrics, Pillar has declined drastically. While his best defensive season, 2016, saw him post a UZR of 12.2 (which, according to the Fangraphs glossary is between “great” and “Gold Glove-caliber”), this season saw him put up a UZR of merely 2.3, 22nd among qualified outfielders.
His ARM rating dropped slightly, he made more errors in fewer innings, and was overall less of a star out in the field. While he was still arguably one of the more consistent centre fielders in baseball (7th among all CFs in UZR, 4th in ARM, 5th in RngR), he wasn’t quite at the level he was at in past seasons.
One could make the argument that the Gold Glove Award isn’t entirely about the metrics, and that would be a reasonable, fundamentally justified point. For example, in 2016, Pillar posted a tremendous UZR of 12.2 and complemented that with 21 Defensive Runs Saved (second in all of baseball), 109 out of zone plays (4th in the MLB) and an astounding .942 RZR.
Despite those exceptional metrics, Pillar didn’t win the Gold Glove that year. Instead, Kevin Kiermaier won, posting a UZR of 15.2, 25 DRS, 62 out of zone plays and a .958 RZR. He played significantly fewer innings than Pillar and arguably was less “highlight reel” worthy. The stats were comparable, and Kiermaier beat out Pillar in several major statistical categories.
Perhaps Kiermaier did deserve that award in 2016, and by many accounts, he certainly did. Still, those defensive metrics can often be deceiving, and many dedicated baseball analysts, both partisan and not, were surprised that Pillar didn’t win.
This year, the metrics did in fact line up perfectly with the performance. He was good, he just wasn’t that good. Though he played every day (minus a short DL stint) and made the plays he needed to, he didn’t exceed expectations and make jaws drop by leaping through the air. He was solid, nothing more, nothing less.
In closing, Pillar likely wasn’t “snubbed” for this year’s award. While they haven’t exactly been kind to him in the past, his exclusion from the list was warranted and deserved. If he does play an All-Star calibre centre field in future years, he might have a chance to take home some hardware.