There are few players that will come up during our 2014 Toronto Blue Jays Year in Review series that incite as much debate as outfielder Kevin Pillar. Some people love the all-out gritty play and the fact that he raked at every level of the Blue Jays minor league system. Some will lament Pillar’s lack of a plus skill and his absolute inability to draw a walk.
However, one thing is certain for Kevin Pillar; he’s earned a shot at starting the 2015 season with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Drafted in the 32nd round with the 979th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, Kevin Pillar has far exceeded expectations that were laid in front of him. His career slash-line .322/.364/.477 in 411 minor league games helped propel him up the Blue Jays minor league ladder quickly, and he made his Major League debut on August 14, 2013.
The first year was a bit bumpy and it could be argued that the Blue Jays stuck with him a bit longer than they should have in 2013, but injuries dictated the need more than his performance justified sending Pillar back down. Overall, Kevin Pillar would see action in 36 games in 2013, posting a .206/.250/.333 slash-line with 3 home runs and 10 RBI.
With a healthy outfield in place to start 2014, Kevin Pillar returned to Triple-A Buffalo to start the season.
Returning to Triple-A meant to returning to a level in which Pillar had already surpassed, and he produced as such. With a tremendous batting line of .323/.359/.509 with 10 home runs, 59 RBI, and 27 stolen bases, the 25-year-old was honored as the team MVP (R. Howard Webster Award) for the Buffalo Bisons. Along the way, Pillar posted an 18-game and a 21-game hitting streak, made the International League post-season All-Star Team, and was International League Player of the Week twice during the season.
That’s the kind of performance that merits a promotion, and Kevin Pillar would receive his first promotion of the 2014 season on May 13. Unfortunately, he struggled again on this initial call-up, sporting a batting line of .225/.220/.300 in his first 41 plate appearances and was subsequently demoted following a game on June 24th (we’ll get into that a little later).
Things improved for Pillar the second time around though. After going back to Triple-A and once again dominating pitching in Buffalo, Pillar was promoted again on August 26th and stayed with the team through the remainder of the season. He would produce a slash-line of .289/.333/.447 slash line over his last 27 games (81 plate appearances). Overall, Pillar would be worth 0.6 WAR according to FanGraphs after authoring a .267/.295/.397 season with 2 home runs and 7 RBI.
Additionally, Pillar showed that his versatility and scrappy play in the outfield had its value to the team. Fielding metrics like UZR/150 (19.4) and DRS (5) showed that he plays an advanced defensive outfield, with the versatility to play in all three spots as needed.
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As discussed above, Pillar continues to struggle with his pitch recognition, something that has haunted him at all levels. While he’s been able to minimalize his strike-out rates at the minor league level, Major League pitchers are exposing that. After posting a 26.4% K-rate in 2013, Pillar came back in 2014 and improved it, but only slightly to 23.0%.
Additionally, Kevin Pillar struggles mightily with his walk rates, something that has again plagued him throughout his professional career. In 218 Major League plate appearances, Pillar has netted himself just 8 total free passes, something that is just unacceptable in a day and age when so much attention is paid to on-base percentage and working counts.
There was also a slight maturity issue that was revealed in 2014, which reared its ugly head when the Blue Jays were forced to option Pillar back to Buffalo in June. Pillar took issue with being lifted for a pinch hitter during a June 24th game against the New York Yankees’ Dellin Betances and through his bat down the dugout tunnel. Manager John Gibbons was not happy with the display and Pillar was sent to Buffalo in favor of outfielder Brad Glenn the next day. The issue is likely a one-time strike and was quickly put behind all parties as a learning experience, but it was nonetheless a mark on Pillar’s otherwise spotless character sheet.
The strong return Pillar showed upon his recall, and after the aforementioned bat in tunnel issue, has the Blue Jays strongly considering utilizing Pillar and fellow outfielder Anthony Gose in a platoon for the 2015 season, with top prospect Dalton Pompey figuring into the mix depending on his spring performance. That’s a good sign for Pillar, who has the makings of a strong fourth outfielder, very much in the mold of former Blue Jay Reed Johnson.
Like Johnson, Pillar will look to hit his stride in his year 26 season and seems willing to take on any role the club has for him next season. Considering the solid career that Johnson crafted for himself as a utility outfielder, Pillar could be quite useful to this team for years to come. Not exactly a building block, but still quite useful.