As potentially the only returning starting outfielder next season, the Blue Jays will look to Kevin Pillar to continue to provide gold glove calibre defence, and hope he can improve with the bat
The Blue Jays outfield is set to look quite a bit different than it did a year ago. With Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders both free agents, Kevin Pillar is the lone starter set to return to the fold. While it’s still possible that Bautista and/or Saunders could return, Pillar is the only thing we know for sure at this point.
Losing two starters and a combined 46 home runs will hurt, but Pillar quietly had the most valuable season of the trio. Playing in 146 games, Pillar earned 3.4 bWAR (Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference), which was good for third on the team, behind Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion.
“Superman” also finished 2nd in Gold Glove voting to Kevin Kiermaier for the 2nd year in a row, continuing to grow his reputation as one of the best defensive players in baseball. A (very) strong argument could be made that Pillar deserved the award last season, as Kiermaier only played in 105 games due to injury.
You may also remember that Pillar actually started the season as the leadoff hitter in the Blue Jays lineup. After finishing the 2015 season with a line of .278/.314/.399, Pillar appeared to be making strides at the plate, giving the Jays reason to try him out in the role. It didn’t go terribly well, and Pillar spent the bulk of the season hitting in the bottom third of the order. He finished 2016 with a line of .266/.303/.378, taking a slight step back.
For as good as he is on defence, Pillar could be a key to the lineup next season. In 2015, he showed he can be a threat on the bases, stealing 25 bags in 29 attempts. He was 14 for 20 in 2016, but he also played through more minor injuries, possibly slowing him down. He also hit 12 home runs in 2015 compared to just 7 in 2016. An early season thumb injury no doubt contributed to Pillar’s offensive struggles, as he hit just .225 in May.
Pillar brings enough value to the team with his glove alone, that he doesn’t have to do much on offence in order to earn his place in the lineup. That said, the California native has room to grow with the stick, and it wouldn’t take much to push him into another level of “value”. He earned a bWAR value of 5.2 in 2015, with the difference being his higher batting average, home runs, etc.
A quick glance at his splits tells a lot of the tale. Simply put, when he gets ahead in the count, Pillar is a .300 hitter or better. While that’s true of many big leaguers, Pillar’s stats are fairly drastic in this area. Take a look for yourself:
As you can see above, Pillar sits at or below the Mendoza line when he gets behind in the count. Again, that’s a fairly normal thing for many hitters, but its worth noting for someone like the centre-fielder. Pillar is a fastball hitter, and staying ahead in the count is the best way to ensure you’ll avoid breaking balls.
Without digging into an altered approach too much (I’ll leave that to Pillar and hitting coach Brook Jacoby), the potential exists for Pillar to take another step forward with the bat. If he can stay healthy (not doing this so often might help) and build on his 2015 numbers, he could become the type of multi-tool player that is coveted across the MLB.
At 5.2 and 3.4 bWAR the last two seasons respectively, he doesn’t have to improve a ton in order to enter the game’s elite company. The potential exists for a 20-20 season (though he’d have to take a bigger step in the power department), and that type of skill set isn’t exactly easy to find, especially from a former 32nd round pick.
Whether fans realize it or not, they’ve got a pretty special player in Kevin Pillar, and 2017 could be the year he serves notice to the rest of the league. I’ll be the first to say, I wouldn’t bet against it.