Toronto Blue Jays News

Kevin Pillar: From Blue Jays’ Fourth Outfielder to Superman

Bevan Hamilton
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Kevin Pillar has become a household name in Canada this year, with nicknames ranging from “Toronto’s new favourite underdog” to Superman.

When any team goes on a playoff run, a lot of things have to go right for them. All cylinders have to be clicking. And most of the time, the bottom of their lineup – the more-or-less “unknown” players  – have to rise to the spotlight.

For the Toronto Blue Jays this season, that has been Pillar. Well, it’s actually been a number of guys – Chris Colabello, Ryan Goins and Roberto Osuna also come to mind. These are players known by Jays’ fans, but not well-known amongst other teams.

Pillar wasn’t even expected to be a regular coming into the year. The Blue Jays were hoping Dalton Pompey would rise to the task of being their everyday centre-fielder. But Pompey’s slow start led to his demotion and Pillar slid over to centre-field, where he has been ever since.

And he has been making highlight-reel catches ever since too, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

All things considered, Pillar has put together quite a decent year for the Jays, becoming a fan favourite in the process.

Offense

The samples of Pillar’s offense his first two part-seasons in Toronto didn’t give much in the way of offensive expectation:

I mean, the guy posted a 7:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That alone was concerning enough. But Pillar has posted some good numbers this season:

Besides lowering his K:BB ratio to 3:1, Pillar has also been productive, collecting over 150 hits so far, along with 30 doubles. He has some pop in his bat at times, showcased by his 12 homeruns and many of his hits have been timely, like this one to give the Jays the lead on Friday night:

Pillar was also named the Blue Jays’ player of the month for June (who would have thought, right?), hitting .365 and driving in 18 runs, both among the American League leaders for the month.

So why is he hitting so well this year as opposed to the last couple years?

Well, for one thing, he’s a good hitter. At least at the minor league level, Pillar has always been successful offensively. He hit over .300 every year in the minors, except for one – and that year, he hit .299. Take a look at his career numbers in the minor leagues:

Clearly, the guy has offensive skill to begin with. Another thing to consider is being given the chance to play everyday. I know it’s been said, but it’s important to show a player you have confidence in his ability. Players often seem to respond to that.

The Blue Jays also have a new hitting coach this season, Brook Jacoby. He has done a good job in bringing the best out of all the Jays hitters. Granted, they are nearly all offensive players to begin with, but he has helped them sustain their production over an entire season, which previous hitting coaches seemed to have trouble doing.

Pillar has had his slumps, too. He slowed down majorly after his hot start, hitting just .181 in the month of May, but he responded to that by hitting .365 in June to win Blue Jays player of the month. Like a true major-league player, he has adjusted his way out of the slumps.

In fact, as I’m writing this, the MLB just announced that Pillar has been named AL Player of the Week, thanks to his .524 batting average.

Suffice it to say the Blue Jays must be happy with the numbers Pillar has given them over the course of this season.

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Defence 

Pillar is probably most well-known for his defence. The guy covers a lot of ground out in centre field and puts his body on the line without a second thought. It didn’t take long this year for him to make the highlight reels and he has been there often. His best catch, though, is probably the one that gave him the nickname of ‘Superman.’

My favourite part of that video is Pat Tabler saying, “No, he didn’t. No, he didn’t!” But he did, he really did. Pillar gives his all in the outfield and fans love him for that. But the numbers also back up the idea that he’s one of the best defensive centre-fielders in the AL.

Pillar’s 2.94 range factor per game leads the league, ahead of the likes of Lorenzo Cain, Kevin Kiermaier and even Mike Trout. And only Trout and Jacoby Ellsbury have a better fielding percentage in centre than him.

Pillar has 14 defensive runs saved this season, behind Cain and Kiermaier (who has an astounding 39!). Another cool stat is defensive wins above replacement. Pillar is second, among all position players in the AL with a 2.7 defensive WAR. Again, Kiermaier leads the league at 4.7. (That guy is good.) Fun fact: Goins is also on the top ten list of defensive WAR with a 1.8.

Pillar certainly has skill, but he also works hard every day and that’s endearing to managers and coaches.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

Baserunning

I made a separate one for this because it’s something I think Pillar has really put together this season. He’s gained the confidence to steal bases at the MLB level. In Saturday afternoon’s game, Pillar stole his 25th base of the season, putting him fifth in the AL. He’s also ranked third in stolen-base percentage, being successful 89.2 per cent of the time.

While he certainly isn’t regarded as a pure base-stealer for the franchise (Rajai Davis had over 40 in 2013 and 2014), he is still a legitimate threat to run, distracting pitchers and getting himself into scoring position. It’s a tool that will come in handy in the playoffs when the Jays are playing against tougher pitchers and the bats may be more hard-pressed.

You could argue that Pillar has put together the best season for a Blue Jays’ centre-fielder since Vernon Wells in 2010. I mean, if you put it all together – the offence, the defence, the baserunning, the clubhouse spirit…

Colby Rasmus is the only other centre-fielder who has played over 100 games for the Jays since then, and I believe Pillar brings more value than Rasmus, what with the incredible number of strikeouts, little baserunning ability and general feeling that he didn’t care whether the team won or lost.

Pillar will have to keep working hard to maintain his spot as the Blue Jays everyday centre-fielder next season, but for now he can enjoy his time as Superman.

Next: Jays' Nest Podcast #38: Clinching & Pitching

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