It’s mid-July, and by now everyone and their grandmother is aware of what Kevin Pillar is doing to the upper levels of minor league baseball. With the Bisons coming out of the All Star Break, the enigmatic outfield prospect has amassed a .321/.371/.484 slash line across nearly 400 at-bats (between the Double-A and Triple-A levels), with 30 doubles, 4 triples, and 9 home runs to his name. Toss in 26 walks and 16 stolen bases, and you have yourself a mighty impressive player page on Baseball Reference.
This really isn’t a startling development to anyone who has been following Pillar’s career since the Blue Jays drafted him in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft. The .313 average he posted with New Hampshire earlier this season? That’s the worst batting average he’s recorded at a level… literally ever. In his four years at Cal State Dominguez Hills he hit .379 (’08), .329 (’09), .379 (’10), and .369 (’11), and Pillar was roughly a .400 hitter throughout his High School career. Maybe he hit worse than that in little league, but I have no desire to type “14 year old Kevin Pillar numbers” into my internet browser. I think that automatically puts you on some kind of list.
Despite a decade of phenomenal performance, myself and many other prospectors have discounted the future value Pillar has in the game of baseball. Mind you, no one is calling him useless – it’s a fairly unanimous agreement that he has Major Leaguer written all over him – and that’s a massive compliment. However, nearly every scouting report for Pillar will throttle the word “average” down your throat four-or-five times per paragraph, and is all but guaranteed to conclude with a sentence containing some configuration of the phrase “fourth outfielder.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the guilty parties, as in ranking Pillar as the system’s 17th best prospect back in January, I included the following disclaimer “…he could play full time and be league average on a mediocre team, but the better teams will view him as a strong option off the bench as a fourth outfielder.”
I’m not quite sure where the Reed Johnson comparison first originated, but I know I have used it, as has well respected Fangraphs prospect guru Marc Hulet. He mentions the former Blue Jays outfielder in both his updated Top 15 Blue Jays ranking from November as well as his article from earlier this month discussing the next wave of Blue Jays prospects, saying in the latter that “Pillar’s ceiling seems similar to former Jay and current Brave Reed Johnson.”
The purpose of this article is to make two points; first, that a Reed Johnson comparison is hardly the insult than many Blue Jays fans make it out to be; and second, that at least statistically speaking, it’s not that accurate of one. The first point is far easier to tackle, so let’s start there.
Reed Johnson made his debut with Toronto in 2003, as a 26 year old, and hit .294/.353/.427/.780 in 114 games. Through his first four seasons he was worth a total of 7.5 WAR (according to Fangraphs), thanks largely to the 2006 season in which he hit .319/.390/.479/.869 and was worth 4.4 WAR. For comparison, the only Blue Jays outfielder to have a more valuable season in the last five years is, you guessed it, Jose Bautista. Johnson fell apart in 2007, and in 2008 he was with a new organization, the Chicago Cubs. He’s since played for the Dodgers, the Cubs again, and most recently the Braves. Now in his eleventh season, Johnson has a career line of .283/.340/.410/.750 across 3,395 Major League at-bats, has been worth 10.9 WAR, and has earned himself nearly 14 million dollars. That’s a damn fine career, no matter who you ask.
Blue Jays fans will fondly remember the platoon that manager John Gibbons employed between Reed Johnson and fan favorite Frank Catalanotto. He maximized the production of both players, with Catalanotto getting the lion’s share of right handers, and Johnson stepping in against left handers and as a late game defensive replacement. A quick glance at the numbers shows exactly why Gibby’s the best, as in 1317 career at-bats against lefties, Johnson has hit .312/.367/.459/.827. Against righties, that line slips to .264/.323/.379/.702 in 2078 career at-bats.
This segues nicely into my second point, as some have suggested that Pillar’s future lies only as the short side of a righty/lefty platoon. There’s no arguing that he hits lefties better than he hits righties. He’s a right handed batter – he should – and thanks to Baseball America, we can look at those splits from the 2013 season. In 137 at-bats against lefties, Pillar has hit .394 with 18 extra base hits and 9 walks against 13 strikeouts. In 260 at-bats against righties, he’s hit .285 with 25 extra base hits and 16 walks against 30 strikeouts. The sample size is still relatively small and minor league splits aren’t always the most reliable, but when I see the above numbers, I don’t see a bat restricted to a platoon. At all.
It also cannot be argued that Pillar has always been a little old for his level, much like Johnson was coming up through Toronto’s system. During their age 22-season, both Pillar and Johnson played in short season ball. At age23, they both split time between Single-A and High-A. It’s the age-24 season where the separation begins. Pillar has already manhandled Double-A and has carried that dominance over to Triple-A, causing General Manager Alex Anthopoulos to suggest he might be the next outfielder to come up should a need arise. Johnson spent his entire season at Double-A, not seeing Triple-A until the following year when he was 25. Even when he got there, he didn’t perform particularly well, hitting just .233/.317/.358/.675 for the year. Furthermore, Pillar has yet another edge if you compare their career minor league numbers:
Johnson: 1533 AB, .292/.381/.433/.814, 87 2B, 17 3B, 32 HR, 167/233 BB/K, 68 SB
Pillar: 1134 AB, .327/.374/.474/.848, 75 2B, 13 3B, 22 HR, 76/151 BB/K, 75 SB
Johnson has the superior walk rate, without a doubt, but Pillar has a slight edge in isolated power (147 versus 141) as well as a significant advantage in both batting average (35 points) and strikeout rate (roughly 2% better).
It can be discussed whether or not it’s a true skill, but Johnson has, in my opinion, artificially inflated his on-base percentage by riding the plate and refusing to get out of the way of pitches. In his Major League career, he’s been hit by a total of 125 pitches in the 3,395 at-bats I mentioned previously – roughly once every 27.2 at-bats. In Pillar’s minor league career, he’s been hit 14 times in 1134 at-bats – once every 81 at-bats. In a 600 at-bat season, that’s a difference of roughly 15 hit-by-pitches, which is approximately the difference between a .333 OBP and a .350 OBP. If Johnson had similar success sticking his elbow out on pitches in the minor leagues, then the .381 number we see above may be slightly less indicative of a great eye and more the matter of a very large elbow pad. I will never penalize Johnson for finding a way on base, but when it comes to projecting skills for the highest level of professional baseball, I prefer to give weight to things requiring actual baseball ability, like swinging a bat or letting a borderline pitch go by for a ball, not standing with the tips of your cleats almost touching home plate.
Reed Johnson is one hell of a baseball player, and as a fan growing up he was a pleasure to watch. Should Kevin Pillar follow a similar career arc, Blue Jays fans should be ecstatic, not disappointed. But the deeper you look, the more you realize that their only true similarities are that neither of them is quite good enough defensively to play centerfield full time, and neither of them has the above average power typically sought after for the corner outfield positions. Pillar has more than enough glove and arm to be a stout defender in left field, and with a bat that almost assuredly will be better than someone who has hit .283 in over 3,300 major league at-bats – I’ll take that on my team any day of the week. When you consider that over the last four and a half years, Blue Jays left fielders have combined for a total of 1.0 WAR in 1,336 games – you should too.