Blue Jays: Is this finally the breakout year for Kevin Pillar?

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 29: Kevin Pillar #11 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning during MLB game action against the Texas Rangers at Rogers Centre on April 29, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 29: Kevin Pillar #11 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning during MLB game action against the Texas Rangers at Rogers Centre on April 29, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

29 year old outfielder Kevin Pillar is off to another great start this season, after doing the same in April of 2017. Is this the year he maintains his production and puts it all together at the plate?

It’s been easy to forget just how valuable Kevin Pillar has been over the last few seasons. Aside from guys like Josh Donaldson and Marcus Stroman, he’s been one of the more valuable players on the roster since 2015, at least according to bWAR.

In 2015 Pillar had an outstanding year with the glove and was reasonably solid at the plate as well, hitting .278/.314/.388 with 12 home runs, 56 RBI, 31 doubles, and 25 stolen bases. Add that to his glove work and he was worth 4.9 bWAR that year. He followed that up with a bit of a step back at the plate in 2016 and 2017, earning 3.5, and 2.8 bWAR in the following two seasons. The biggest difference was at the plate, as he was not only unable to grow from that first year as a full time starter, but actually regressed a bit.

Last year it looked like Pillar may have had something click as a professional hitter when he started the season hitting .301/.339/.505 with four home runs, seven doubles, and eight RBI in the season’s opening month. He cooled off to a .252 average in May, before hitting just .211 combined for June and July. In all he finished the year with a .256/.300/.404 slash line, which was far from what he had hoped to do as a hitter.

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He’s well known for the plus defence he brings to centre field for the Blue Jays, but as with any somewhat limited offensive player, it gets more difficult to hold on to a full-time big league job as you get older. Pillar showed a few signs of decline defensively last season, but he’s still young enough that he could easily reverse those trends as he’s not even 30 yet.

However, when it comes to the Blue Jays depth chart it was becoming obvious that Pillar would need to perform at the plate this season, or he could risk losing his starting gig even with a Gold Glove calibre mitt. The Jays brought in Randal Grichuk who has experience in centre field, Teoscar Hernandez is capable, and they also have the likes of Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey in their minor league system. If Pillar had the type of April that Grichuk just went through, there’s a good chance that the fanbase would be screaming for Alford to get promoted, or for a trade of Pillar.

That hasn’t been the case though obviously, as Pillar has gotten off to another great start at the plate in April, and hopefully he’ll be able to maintain his production as the season wears on. After Thursday’s game the month has come to a close, and Pillar finished with a .305/.351/.552 slash line, hitting four home runs, 10 doubles, two triples, collecting 12 RBI, and swiping four bases. He’s quietly been one of the best players on the team, and has already earned 1.5 bWAR this season in just 28 games played.

I’ll admit that I openly questioned what “Superman’s” future might look like in Toronto, but I’ll also state that I’ve always felt there was more offensive potential than he’s been able to put together. In my opinion, the key for Pillar has always been plate discipline, and this season he’s had a better eye at the plate and a confident approach. If he can maintain that for greater portion of the season then his value increases all that much more.

I also wrote earlier in the season about how Pillar must be feeling the footsteps of the youngsters this season, and how that would put pressure on him to perform at a higher rate on offence. So far he’s done just that, and he’s slowly been moving his way up John Gibbons‘ lineup lately. He hit fifth on Monday night after the Twins and has been slated above the likes of the struggling Kendrys Morales and Russell Martin lately, and with good reason.

It’s very likely that he’ll slow down to some extent, but if Pillar can bring a stat line similar to what he produced in 2015, he won’t be going anywhere for the Blue Jays this season, and likely for awhile after that. Yes, there is talent waiting in the minor league wings, but those that produce are invited to stick around more often than not, and even though Pillar is getting a little more expensive, his contract is definitely reasonable if he’s hitting like this.

Hopefully this will be the breakout year we’ve been waiting for from the California native. He’s been a lot of fun to watch this year, and he’s been a big reason why the Blue Jays are four games above .500 despite struggles and missed games from some of their best players. He’s stepped up in a big way, and call me crazy, but I’m starting to believe he’s turned a corner at the plate and that 2018 might finally be the year he breaks out. I know, we’ve seen this before, but maybe it’s for real this time.

Next: Blue Jays: Teoscar Hernandez's remarkable rise

A late career blossom worked for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in Toronto, so why not Pillar?