A somewhat surprising Pillar of strength helps the Blue Jays turn the season around

It would not be an understatement to say the Toronto Blue Jays had a disastrous start to the 2017 season. They lost 11 of their first 13 games and 17 of their first 23. The Blue Jays put themselves in a huge hole.

Over the past week or so, the Blue Jays have started to turn their season around. They've won five straight and 7 of  8 to push their record to 17-21. Still below .500, but at least now they've given themselves a shot.

Sunday's hero was center fielder and defensive wiz Kevin Pillar, who swatted a walk-off home run against the Mariners (TOR 3, SEA 2). In true Pillar fashion, he made a great leaping catch earlier in the game. Here is the catch and walk-off homer:

The home run was Pillar's fifth, and it pushed his batting line to .314/.369/.497 (135 OPS+). Last season he hit seven home runs and .266/.303/.376 (81 OPS+). The year before Pillar hit 12 home runs with a .278/.314/.399 (93 OPS+) batting line. He's hitting like never before.

There are reasons to believe Pillar's breakout is for real. He's always made a lot of contact, but now he's making harder contact. Lots of players can get the bat on the ball. Not everyone can drive the ball with consistency. Pillar is doing that now. Here are his strikeout and hard contact rates, via FanGraphs:

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Kevin Pillar has combined fewer strikeouts with more hard contact this season. FanGraphs

Those are two positive trends in the early going, and harder contact is leading to the uptick in production which is helping the Blue Jays get back on track.

Pillar, who turned 28 in January and is right at the age when many players experience a career year offensively, has helped the Blue Jays overcome a slow start by Jose Bautista and injuries to Josh Donaldson (calf) and Troy Tulowitzki (hamstring). Bautista, Donaldson, and Tulowitzki have combined for +0.3 WAR through 38 team games. Yikes.

If you'd have told me before the season those three players would essentially be replacement level through 38 games, I'd have said the Blue Jays would be in last place. And, well, they are. But I would have also guessed their record would be a lot worse than 17-21. Pillar has picked them up in a big way.

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