Kevin Pillar has carved himself a reputation as one of the better defensive centre fielders in the American League. However, this year the numbers don’t support that claim any more.
For the last several years, Kevin Pillar has been one player that Blue Jays fans could regularly debate his value on the diamond. One on hand, the guy consistently has been among team leaders in WAR, one of the more important metrics in today’s analytical game. On the other hand though, he’s always felt like a player who could take a major leap in value with just a small step forward.
That hasn’t happened on the offensive side of the ball, despite how many times he’s come roaring out of the gates to start a new season. That trend continued for Pillar this spring, as he looked like he might finally be putting things together at the plate and was poised for a breakout offensive season. Unfortunately he’s regressed closer to career norms, as he’s slashing .247/.274/.411 with 12 home runs, 53 RBI, 37 doubles, and 14 stolen bases in 128 games played. His OBP is down 27 points from last year, but otherwise the numbers are pretty much in line with what we’ve come to expect from him.
Unfortunately he hasn’t been the same player on defence that the Blue Jays have come to rely on, and that’s dragging down his overall value quite a bit. He’s been worth 1.7 bWAR so far this season, which is down from the 2.8 he earned in 2017, the 3.5 mark in 2016, and the career high of 4.9 back in 2015. He’s got a few games to add to his totals, but the numbers are going down.
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While that’s a concerning enough trend, having a look at his defensive numbers isn’t very reassuring. Pillar’s dWAR rating on baseballreference.com has been 2.8, 2.7, and 1.9 in his 2015-17 seasons. This year it’s sitting at -0.1 which would be a career low for the 29 year old.
Over at Fangraphs the story isn’t a whole lot different as far as the downward trend is concerned. His overall WAR marks have gone from 3.7, 2.4, and 2.0, down to 1.5 this season. On defence he sports a mark of 3.6 compared to 10.9 (2015), 14.4 (2016), and 7.7 last season.
Regardless of what defensive metric you’re looking at (and there are plenty of them), the numbers are down pretty much across the board. For a guy who has built his value and his job security on his superior defence, it’s not something that the player or the club wants to see as he gets closer to hitting 30 years old.
Let’s face it, the Blue Jays have received every ounce of effort from the California native throughout his career in Toronto, and it’s entirely possible that it’s just catching up with him. Years of smashing himself recklessly into the wall, or the Rogers Centre turf can’t have been easy on his body, and it’s possible that we’re seeing a regression because of that abuse. It’s also possible that these numbers are a bit of an outlier for the defensively gifted veteran, but we know he won’t be elite out there forever even if that’s the case.
As I mentioned above, the problem for Pillar is that his value is largely built on his contributions with the glove. He’s been a stable presence in the outfield for John Gibbons for several years now, and has spent a surprisingly small amount of days on the DL, considering how hard he plays the game. However, if he can’t take a step forward at the plate (and it doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen), and his defence is starting to inevitably slip, then the Blue Jays are going to have some difficult questions to ask themselves this offseason.
The outfield is one area that the team doesn’t have a lot of guaranteed options, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent kicking around waiting for an opportunity. Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez are almost assured of playing time next year, and I’m thinking the same goes for Billy McKinney as well after the impressive start to his career as a Blue Jay. The front office could choose to bring in another veteran this winter as well, or give an opportunity to a youngster like Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford, or Roemon Fields.
It also doesn’t help Pillar’s cause that’s going to be getting more expensive, even if he won’t be due a huge raise this winter. He made 3.25 million in 2018 and will likely approach somewhere in the neighbourhood of five million next season. The Blue Jays shouldn’t have any issues with the payroll numbers, but that doesn’t mean that ownership wouldn’t mind saving another five million, especially if the drop off in production isn’t very severe.
There’s not a lot of time for Pillar to change anyone’s minds before this season ends either, so it’ll likely come down to what the front office is able to accomplish this winter, and if there is a trade market for his services. It’s hard to imagine him being non-tendered this offseason, but it’s also not out of the realm of possibility either. Unfortunately, for as much as I like the blue-collar outfielder, I can understand the rumblings that it may make sense to move on from him this winter.
If I were a betting man I would guess that he’s back in 2019 to help anchor a young team, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins decide to move on either. All you really need to do in order to justify such a thing is have a look at Pillar’s numbers this year. Unfortunately, they’re not very pretty.