Blue Jays: The upside to a motivated and improved Kevin Pillar

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 11: Kevin Pillar
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 11: Kevin Pillar /

In what could be a crucial year for the trajectory of Kevin Pillar’s career, the 29 year old is focused on improving his value at the plate.

Blue Jays fans have had the pleasure of watching the human highlight reel that is Kevin Pillar for more than three seasons now. He’s been nominated for the Gold Glove award, and has posted very impressive WAR numbers mostly on the strength of his defensive abilities. While he’s criticized for what he hasn’t been able to do at times, posting WAR marks of 5.2 (2015), 3.4 (2016), and 2.8 (2017) is no small feat.

And yet Pillar is entering the 2018 season knowing that he’s going to need to make improvements in his overall game, for a number of reasons. He’s not ignorant to the fact that there is talent coming soon in the minor league system, with the likes of Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, Dalton Pompey and more as capable centre fielders who could arguably contribute right now at the highest level.

There’s also the fact that Pillar’s defensive numbers started to slip a little bit last season, at least compared to what he had provided in the last couple of seasons. It’s not as if he’s a liability by any means, but he’s also getting a little bit older, and has a lot of miles on his body in his 548 career games. He’s been able to avoid the disabled list for the most part since becoming a starter, but he’s also made a name for himself by crashing into walls on the regular, and generally disregarding his own safety for the sake of a great catch. It’s why many Blue Jays fans love the blue collar worker, who wasn’t drafted until the 32nd round in 2011 and still managed to become a big leaguer.

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Add to the equation that Pillar is no longer a contract steal for the Blue Jays (arbitration raise to $3.25 million to $555,000 after his first year of arbitration), and it all adds up to added pressure on him to perform better at the plate, something he’s struggled with for the majority of his time in the bigs.

Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling put out a great piece yesterday on his focus this spring, and how he hopes to model the approach that brought Justin Smoak his 2017 success. Much like Pillar, Smoak had struggled to consistently contribute at the plate as a big leaguer, and found himself arguably on the cusp of losing his starting position, and maybe even his roster spot. That’s not an immediate threat to Pillar at this stage (I think?), but he knows he’ll have to make strides on offence as he gets older and more expensive, or the kids will be very hard to fend off in Toronto.

The good news on defence for the California native is he’ll have an improved pair in the corners this season. Randal Grichuk is an asset on defence and is expected to be the regular right fielder, and Curtis Granderson will patrol left field, at least when the Jays are facing off against a right handed starting pitcher. I doubt that will stop him from throwing himself into harms way for the sake of a catch, but at least the newly found depth could even allow him a few more rest games this season as well.

Zwelling’s article quotes Pillar talking about his offseason efforts as well, and there’s no doubt that he’s got the right attitude about wanting to continually improve.

"“I worked my butt off in the off-season to come back and improve my game any way I can,” the 29-year-old says. “I’m never going to be a guy who’s content with where I’m at. I’m always going to try to push the boundaries, push the limits in my game, and make adjustments when I can. And it’s nice to go out there and be rewarded with it.”"

Whether or not Pillar can make that leap with the bat is another question, but at least he’s focused on improving on the weakness in his game. With plus defence and solid speed on the base paths, he’s found plenty of ways to add value to the Blue Jays lineup in recent years.

If he can find a way to improve his on base percentage and maintain his defensive prowess, he’s likely be able to quiet a lot of doubters in 2018, just as Smoak did last season. Whether or not you believe he can accomplish it, you have to appreciate that the 5 year veteran isn’t satisfied with his role in the game.  And as long as he’s bringing that attitude to the diamond when he puts on a Blue Jays uniform, you can’t help but cheer for the guy.

Next: Stroman receives an encouraging injury prognosis