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Aspiring Jays: Kevin Pillar

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This week in Aspiring Jays: the Toronto Blue Jays' 32nd round draft pick from the 2011 MLB draft takes centre stage.

funny, the only picture we have of Pillar is of him being taunted by the Pirates' mascot
funny, the only picture we have of Pillar is of him being taunted by the Pirates' mascot

Kevin Pillar was drafted from California State Dominguez Hills as a senior, in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft. His college plays in the NCAA Division II, and its most successful baseball alumni are a decent reliever (Eric Plunk) and a backup infielder (Craig Grebeck, former Blue Jay). In fact, the school's wikipedia page lists no baseball players as notable alumni. And now there's Kevin Pillar, lighting it up in triple-A, trying to make that wikipedia page - among other things - despite the odds seemingly stacked against him. In 2010, when Kevin Pillar was a junior, he set a new Division II record with a 54-game hitting streak, but went undrafted. In his senior year, he did get drafted, but only in the 32nd round and for a minimal signing bonus.

Kevin Pillar's minor league career started off nicely, as he hit .343/.377/.534 for Bluefield after signing in 2011. Still, a 22-year-old hitting well in a league for 19-year-olds is hardly a miracle, and it seemed like Kevin Pillar was still more known for the similarity of his name to "clubhouse presence" Kevin Millar, and the subject of jokes rather than an analysis of his abilities as a player. Last year, Pillar continued his career with the Lugnuts, hitting .322/.390/.451 for them, and .323/.339/.415 after a promotion to Dunedin late in the season. This performance put him on the radar for some, but a 23-year-old hitting for little power at those lower levels still seemed like a long shot to many. But Pillar wasn't done yet. Hitting .313/.361/.441 for New Hampshire, Pillar "forced" the Blue Jays' hand, and they called him up to Buffalo, where he's now hitting .347/.404/.621 in 25 games. That is a fantastic number, and Jays fans will be eager to see what Pillar can do.

I'm not the biggest fan of player comparisons, but I get why people want to see them. In the case of Pillar, I actually agree with the common comparison being thrown around: Reed Johnson. Johnson, like Pillar, was drafted late (17th round) and also started his minor league career at the ripe age of 22. He started a level higher than Pillar, in the New York-Penn league, but hit just .241/.326/.335 there. However, in a very comparable second season - mostly in low-A with a stint in high-A at the end - Johnson outhit Pillar with a .298/.420/.479 season. Moved up to Double-A, Johnson hit .314/.383/.451 in his age 24 season, but unlike Pillar, Johnson did not receive a promotion. Reed Johnson wasn't the exact same player then that Kevin Pillar is now, but the two are very close. Pillar draws less walks than Johnson, but seems to get more hits on balls in play (skill or luck?). Johnson had a better second pro year, but Pillar has "beaten" Johnson to Triple-A and is only getting better. Like Johnson, Pillar seems headed for a career as a decent contributor to a big league team.

At this point, however, it would be wise to curb the enthusiasm just a little bit. Pillar's line in New Hampshire is good, but not fantastic, especially for a player who is likely a corner outfielder. His value pre-Buffalo for a large part came from a high batting average on balls in play. As you likely know, the majors are filled with very good defenders, making it harder to hit for a high average by simply making a lot of decent contact. And while Pillar has been amazing for Buffalo, it's only been 25 games. Let's not forget that Jim Negrych hit .429/.486/.683 in April, before returning to the same subpar hitter he has always been. The statement that Pillar "has hit everywhere he's gone" is misleading. He's only ever hit a lot of singles and doubles, he's never dominated a level (until now with the Bisons) and he's always been old for the level he's played at. Pillar does not have a track record of destroying minor league pitching. Reed Johnson is not his floor, it's one of the most positive possible outcomes for Pillar. But you bet I'll be rooting for this guy, both in the minors and hopefully soon in the majors. And, even if it's not likely to be on his mind right now, I very much hope he makes that wikipedia page.