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The Kevin Pillar Hat Trick

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Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

June 21st, 2015 marked Kevin Pillar's 159th career MLB game. In the second inning, he came up against Chris Tillman and did this:

In the bottom of the 5th inning, he walked against Brad Brach. In the top of the 7th inning, he did this:

Per Statcast, balls struck similarly hard (98 MPH exit velocity) and similar launch angle (just under 38 degrees) end up hits just under 40% of the time. And likely higher when hit into a gap. It marked the first time he did something special.

Most Canadian sports fans will be aware of the Gordie Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Many will also be aware that Gordie Howe only did this twice in his career, with the all-time (documented) leader at 18. It's an interesting event mostly because of the juxtaposition that makes it relatively uncommon: the players most likely to record at least a goal and an assist in the same game are high-skill players, who are less likely to engage in fighting. And vice versa.

Blue Jays fans have taken to throwing hats on the field when a player hits three home runs in a game in the manner of hat tricks in hockey. But why stop there? If you were not already aware of it, behold what we here at Bluebird Banter have dubbed the Kevin Pillar Hat Trick: a home run, a walk, and a great catch to steal a hit in the same game. Granted, this is somewhat ironic, as it juxtaposes two offensive events at which Pillar is not that prolific with a defensive event that is pretty rare but at which he is relatively prolific.

For his career, Pillar has hit a home run in just under 2% of his plate appearances, and has walked about 4.5% of the time. Assuming four PA a game and each PA is independent and the outcome random, his chance of hitting having at least a home run and a walk in the same game is about 1.3%. It would be expected to occur about twice per full season.

Of course, plate appearances are not independent and results tend to cluster (players "seeing" the ball well, pitcher quality, etc). Indeed, this past Friday marked the 14th time in Pillar's career he had done that, or roughly twice as often as would be expected. So that's 14 opportunities for the hat trick, though this is the easy part.

Objectively defining what exactly constitutes a great catch that steals a hit is quite a bit harder, since there's no bright line as with walks and home runs beyond "I know it when I see it". The advent of Statcast nicely overlaps with when Pillar became a starter, so I looked at using the expect batting average based on exit velocity and launch angle, but that doesn't work well. A 375 foot high fly ball overall has a high expected value, but to centre field it's just a can of corn.

A very new and potentially very useful metric would be "Outs Above Average", which uses hang time and distance travelled to credit or debit outfielders based on how likely a ball is to caught or not. We could say stolen hits are only balls that are caught (say) less than one-third of the time. But for now, only leaderboards have been rolled out, there's no data on individual plays.

That left going through each of the 14 games, identifying Pillar's catches (in two games, he had none), and then digging into video to find great catches. What follows is the result, a comprehensive list of Kevin Pillar Hat Tricks with video (links to home run video).

Hat Trick #1: June 21st, 2015

Home run: 2nd inning of Chris Tillman (video above)
Walk: 5th inning by Brad Brach
Catch: 7th inning crashing to the wall (video above)

Hat Trick #2: August 30, 2015

Home run2nd inning off Alfredo Simon
Walk: 8th inning by Bruce Rondon
Catch: Sliding catch on a line drive, based on the Statcast speed/angle, 81% chance of falling for a hit. He also just missed another ball.

Hat Trick #3: September 22, 2015

Home run3rd inning off Luis Severino
Walk: 5th inning by Severino
Catch: Running catch in left-centre in the 3rd on a ball hit by Brian McCann. The ball hung up a fair bit, and Pillar made it look pretty easy, but he was shaded in the opposite direction.

Hat Trick #4: April 23, 2017

After an entire season without one (he had two games in the first half of 2016 with a walk and home run, but only recording one out in both games combined, a routine fly out), Pillar got track on track early this year.

Home run8th inning off Brooks Pounder
Walk: 3rd inning by Daniel Wright
Catch: Stole a base hit from Kole Calhoun on a liner to the right-centre gap in the 8th

Hat Trick #5: May 14, 2017

Home run: 9th inning off Edwin Diaz (video included below)
Walk: 5th inning by Ariel Mirando
Catch: Line drive in the 4th inning by Danny Valencia

Hat Trick #6: September 15, 2017 (?)

Home run5th inning off Bartolo Colon
Walk: 7th inning by Colon; 8th inning by Tyler Duffey
Catch: MLB doesn't have a separate clip, but it's at the 12:00 mark here. Sort of debatable in that the ball hung up quite a bit, but Pillar was playing deep to cut off extra bases and had a long way to come to make the sliding catch.