What Does Kevin Pillar Have To Do To Stay An MLB Regular?
Toronto Blue Jays OF Kevin Pillar has carved out quite a niche in the hearts of the team’s fans.
Pillar has held down center-field more than adequately this year, and has played perhaps the most spectacular defence in the league there outside of Tampa’s Kevin Kiermaier and while he has had an up and down season at the plate, he had a torrid (.365/.380/.531) June, and drove in what proved to be the winning run in a tense rubber match of their series with the Yankees last week.
Despite a NCAA 54-game hitting streak in his final year of college, Pillar was lightly scouted, and lasted until the 32nd round of the 2011 draft. And even though he won the Appalachian League batting title in his first pro season, and was named the Midwestern League MVP despite only playing a half-season for Lansing the following year, he quickly gained a projection of “overachieving fourth outfielder.”
It has taken three MLB seasons for Pillar to establish himself as a regular. Pillar made his MLB debut in August of 2013, and was banished to AAA in June of 2014 for an untimely dugout temper tantrum after being pinch hit for, and led the International League in hitting while serving his exile. This spring, he earned the LF job, and when Dalton Pompey‘s struggles forced him back to the minors, Pillar took over CF and hasn’t looked back.
But Pillar may be looking over his shoulder next season. Barring a trade, his spot in the lineup may be up for grabs over next twelve months: Pompey needs to play every day, and after a .307/.383.421 minor league season at two levels, appears ready to do so. And behind Pompey is the best athlete in the system, former two-sport star Anthony Alford, who made tremendous progress this year after giving up football to focus on baseball. Alford is not quite ready for prime time, but after slashing .298/.388/.414 in his first taste of full season ball, may be ready in another year or so if he continues to progress.
Even though Pillar has made an adequate contribution offensively (.260/.300/.377 at this writing) and the Blue Jays power hitter-laden lineup has been able to carry him, he does not get on base at the same clip as Pompey and Alford both appear destined to. And there’s not a lot in his minor league numbers to suggest that’s going to improve significantly. Pillar has never posted a double-digit base on balls % at any level, and that as much as anything may pose a threat to his status as an every day player.
Pitch recognition continues to be a puzzle for Pillar, and he often finds himself in pitcher’s counts. According to fangraphs.com, Pillar swings at about 41% of pitches thrown to him that are outside of the strike zone – about 10% above league average. He also makes contact with those pitches (71%) at a higher clip than league average (63%). What does that mean? Each at bat is different, but what it likely means is that he is making frequent contact with pitches that have successfully dodged the barrel of his bat, and much of the contact that he is making is of the weak, ground ball contact, and the numbers seem to bear that out – 41.8% of the balls he has hit have been GB’s. Pillar’s exit velocity on batted balls has averaged 85.17 mph, which ranks him 583rd in all of MLB – more evidence of weak contact.
Let’s be honest – even though Pillar has played above replacement player level, and leads the team in stolen bases, there’s likely no way Alex Anthopoulos thought in March that Pillar would be his everyday center-fielder come May. Pillar needs to learn to be able to recognize pitches better – picking up the direction and frequency of the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand, in order to identify the type of pitch, its likely movement, and probable destination. Even though he has slightly improved his walk rate (5.1%) this year, he still finds himself behind in the count too often, which forces him to widen his strike zone even more. If Pillar learns to lay off of pitches out of the strike zone, he may find himself in better counts, with better pitches to hit. And if he finds himself on base more often, while he’s not the fastest guy in the organization, he’s an incredibly efficient and effective base runner.
Unless he can do that, Pillar could find himself in that overachieving fourth outfielder role he’s tried so hard to shake by this time next year.