The case for Kevin Pillar

If there was one thing that everyone has agreed about, I mean just THE ONE THING, it’s that Kevin Kiermaier was the best center fielder in the American League, and probably all the major leagues, this season. He was the unanimous winner of the Fielding Bible Award, and this week he took home a Gold Glove, too.

In terms of consensus winners, Kiermaier’s only competition is Jason Heyward, who also won a Gold Glove and also was the unanimous choice of the Fielding Bible voters. But at least a little of Heyward’s popularity probably derives from his reputation, while Kiermaier entered 2015 with approximately zero reputation. He just sorta showed up, and by the middle of the season he’d made a few great plays and his numbers were just tremendous.

Except it turns out there’s not a consensus. Wednesday, the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Awards were announced. And Kevin Kiermaier was not the center fielder. Toronto’s Kevin Pillar was.

From MLB — the Wilson Awards are "official" — on how the Wilsons are figured:

Founded in 2012, the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award winners are determined using a formula that combines traditional defensive stats with advanced metrics, as well as the data logged by the baseball experts working for the scouting service Inside Edge.

Now, there’s a LOT of wiggle room in there, and of course nobody’s going to let us look inside the black box. But I’m friendly with some people at Inside Edge, so I asked them about Kevin Pillar and Kevin Kiermaier.

First, I got a little lesson in how Inside Edge categorizes all the plays that might be made. There are five "buckets": Almost Certain, Likely, Even Chance, Unlikely, and Remote. The Almost Certains are plays that are made 99 percent of the time, the Remotes are plays made just 4 percent of the time, and of course the other three buckets are on that continuum. What’s a bit surprising is just how few plays fall into the two most difficult buckets.

This year, for example, Billy Hamilton had 253 plays in the Almost Certain bucket, and made all 253 of them. But he had only 24 Unlikely or Remote plays, making eight of those.

I mention Hamilton because Inside Edge loved his defense, too. But getting back to Pillar and Kiermaier, here’s Inside Edge’s Steve Moyer (also, I should mention in passing, a long-ago colleague of mine at STATS, Inc.):

Even Chance is where the rubber starts really hitting the road. From here on is where fielders separate. Kiermaier was great on Even Chance plays (even though he had only six) and the best in baseball in Remote plays. I’d venture to say those three Remote plays he made in 2015 have gone a long way toward building his rep as Fielder Extraordinaire for 2015.

Where Kiermaier slips compared to Hamilton and Pillar is in the Unlikely category. These plays aren’t quite as spectacular as Remotes, but they’re very tough plays. Whereas Kiermaier was just above average on Unlikely plays, making four, Hamilton made seven and Pillar made eight.

As for arm, it’s true that Kiermaier’s arm is probably the strongest in center (he led MLB with four Excellent throws in terms of arm strength according to our ratings). You’ve probably heard he literally hits 100 on the radar gun. However, he was at least a little more prone to bad throws both in terms of strength and accuracy than other top-armed CFs. Just like with pitching, it’s not all about 100 on the radar gun. Our top arm in center field was Mike Trout, by the way.

So, in conclusion: Did Kevin Kiermaier have a great defensive season in center field in 2015? Absolutely. Was he head and shoulders above all other center fielders? No. Did he have the best defensive season ever – including all positions – since 2003? Preposterous.

I would tend to agree with this. The notion that Kiermaier’s season was quite historic just doesn’t pass a reasonable smell test. Maybe it will, if he does it again. But Steve makes a great point, I think. If you buy into the "buckets," the only thing that separates outfielders are their success rates on a relatively small number of plays. Even including those Even Chance plays, it’s still a small number of potentially successful plays: 40 for Pillar, only 28 for Kiermaier. Steve: "How in the world that small sample size of success on those plays (Kiermaier made 12) equates to as many as 40+ runs never ceases to amaze me. If this was true, wouldn’t every team be exploiting market inefficiency and loading the rosters with defensive specialists? Juan Lagares was last year’s Kiermaier. This year, he wasn’t even starting full-time at the end of the season."

I’ll point out that there remains a great deal of general agreement about the best fielders (although if you pick through the numbers for a while, as I have, you’ll find some widlly different ratings for specific fielders). But there’s still a lot of play in the actual numbers of runs saved by these guys. Which means a great deal when you’re figuring how much to pay them, or how often to play them.