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Fielding questions: Kevin Pillar's high-flying season

In 2015 Kevin Pillar launched himself into the conversation as one of the league's best center fielders. Can he do it again?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Pillar can make you look twice. There was the time against the Baltimore Orioles where he came out of nowhere to make a diving catch in the process of doubling up the runner at second base. Or that time in the heat of a pennant race where he ranged 85 feet to his left, reaching nearly 18 mph, before colliding with the wall to record an out.

Of course, we can’t forget his acrobatic display when he climbed the towering left-field wall at the Rogers Centre to steal a sure home run on Jackie Robinson day.

Take your pick, they were all awesome plays. 2015 was, among many other things for Jays’ fans, the year of countless masterful plays by Kevin Pillar. Maybe the most surprising thing about Pillar’s defensive season is that nearly no one saw it coming.

"I think coming up in the minor leagues the talk was always about my ability to hit and to some degree you have to be able to do that to get your opportunity at the big league level," Pillar said to a group of reporters gathered in Ottawa for the last-stop of the Jays’ Winter Tour. "You really have to stand out with the bat and that’s what allowed me to move through the system so quickly, but my defense was never something that was really talked about. They never said I was a bad defender they just never said I was a good defender."

The statistics definitely back up what Pillar’s assertion. In two full seasons Pillar climbed three levels in the Jays system, eclipsing the highly coveted .300 in batting average at each level. In 2013, Pillar started in Double-A hitting .313 in seventy-one games before being promoted to Triple-A Buffalo. This too proved to be just another stop for Pillar as he continued to hit before being promoted to Toronto.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stick. In 2014 Pillar would split time between Toronto in Buffalo, unable to make a name for himself for more than his run in with manager John Gibbons. For many, the incident—Pillar throwing his bat down the tunnel hallway after being pinch-hit for late in a game against the New York Yankees—was enough to cement his status as a quadruple-A player in the Jays’ organization.

"My emotions at that time got the best of me," Pillar told the Toronto Star. "My lapse in judgment for a couple of seconds cost me some time up there and potentially more. But I accept it. I accept the discipline I got."

Pillar’s punishment: two hours south down the QEW, an exile of sorts. Fortunately for him it wasn't permanent as he was promoted to Toronto on August 26th where he remained for the rest of the season. By season’s end he commanded a .267/.295/.397 triple-slash with five defensive runs saved (DRS); all laudable achievements, helping him earn the starting spot the following season. From there, Pillar was able to focus on the part of his game that no one talked about, his defense.

"You just practice," Pillar says. "More than anything I think it happened when I got to college and that’s when we were taught to practice at game speed during batting practice. You can take all the fungos in the world but nothing simulates the ball coming off the bat like a ball coming off the bat and batting practice is something that we do every single day in baseball so a lot of people see it as a time to work on your offensive game but it’s the best time to work on your defence."

While others treated the daily ritual as a time to chat with teammates, shagging fly balls within the immediate vicinity, Pillar treated it as invaluable training time to become a defensive weapon.

"For me, it’s coming in some days and having everything hit over my head and really working on me going back on balls; some it might be playing at the walls and working on really coming in and shooting a gap. Those are just games I play with myself during batting practice to try to get as many different reads as I can in a day."

Pillar’s fielding first approach during batting practice paid off in 2015, making diving catch after diving catch, appearing on highlight reels across North America on a weekly basis. By season’s end it was his glove that became his primary asset, saving 22 runs which ranked second among American League center fielders.  Unfortunately for him, Kevin Kiermaier saved the Rays 42 runs with his defensive prowess and earned himself the American League Gold Glove award for center field.

"It would have been the cherry on top for the season," Pillar said of narrowly missing out on the Gold Glove. "For me personally, I don’t think I’m going to think any less about my season, that’s something that’s out of my control. It's something in the back of my mind, something I’d like to achieve at least once in my career."

You could say this year would present the golden opportunity to win the award. You wouldn’t be necessarily wrong. Asked how he could do it, Pillar didn’t equivocate.

"Save more runs I guess, I guess that’s the key," Pillar said to a chorus of laughs. "I don’t know how that’s done but I’m going to do my research and figure out how to get them because, wow Kiermaier saved a lot more runs than I did so I really have to improve on that area."

Obviously his bat will dictate how long he’s able to remain a starter in the future. If he can produce anything similar to last season’s .278/.314/.399 triple-slash, as Fangraphs predicts he can, that would certainly provide him the chance to cement his role as one of the game’s best outfielders.

After travelling to Hawaii, throwing a few rocks on the curling rink, and hitting the links, it’s time to get back to work for Pillar and the Blue Jays. Playing in last year’s playoffs surely provided excitement for a fan base starved of the winning culture, but it also provides a benchmark for seasons to come.

For Pillar, with a successful year under his belt, 2016 represents the next step for he and his club.

"I think there’s a little sense of comfort knowing I was able to establish myself last year," he said. "I think it was something I had to prove to other people not myself, that I could play everyday and be successful at the big league level. I’m just a guy that’s going to go out there and try and get better everyday and I want to build on what I did last year, not settle and really set the bar even higher for myself."

Given his theatrical resume, it's safe to say that bar is already rather high.