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Kevin Pillar’s place in Blue Jays history

Detroit Tigers v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

As the Blue Jays (hopefully, weather permitting) close out their season series with the Giants today, it may be the last time we see Kevin Pillar against the Jays for a long while. Accordingly, it’s a good opportunity to look at his place in Blue Jays history.

That obviously starts with the many great catches, and being a regular on the first Jays team to make the playoffs in a generation. He caught a lot of flack for his offensive shortcomings, but ultimately did enough to not be a major liability. Before getting deep into the ranks, two things stand out to me when it comes to Kevin Pillar and the Blue Jays.

First, Pillar was the 979th player selected in the 2011 draft. That’s only a subset of the amateur pool as it doesn’t consider international players, many of whom were more sought after using proxies such as signing bonuses. A player who was not in the top thousand most sought after players in his signing year is arguably already one of the top thousand position players of the last 100 years of the live ball era (using the more favourable bWAR). Even more conservatively using fWAR, he’s still one of the top ~1,500 position players in history. Anyway one parses it, that’s remarkable.

Second, since the promotions of Aaron Hill and Alex Rios in 2005 and their establishments as regulars, Pillar is the only position player regular to have been drafted/signed by the Jays as an amateur and come up through the system. This is a somewhat arbitrary measure — the Jays have developed players at the major league level and acquired others as prospects, and hopefully we’re on the cusp of a wave of prospects that will emphatically end that drought — but one player in 15 years is a pretty sad record. Pillar is the unicorn, the rare prospect from that era who made good.

With four full seasons and bits of two others, Pillar’s 690 games and 2,618 plate appearances rank 30th and 28th in franchise history, a good indication of his significant place. His 10.4 fWAR ranks 24th all-time, slightly above the playing time totals, so he wasn’t just compiling. As we’ll get to in a bit, different measures can boost him even a little more.

Of course, it wasn’t on the strength of his bat, his 87 wRC+ with the Jays ranking 79th of 113 players to post at least 500 plate appearances and putting him alongside the likes of Ed Sprague, Darrin Fletcher, and Damaso Garcia. 55 home runs puts him in a tie for 39th with Roberto Alomar, though this is to a significant degree reflective of era (his isolated power ranking on the lower half).

Pillar famously didn’t walk much, and his final mark of 4.2% ranks 8th lowest of those 113, sandwiched between Shea Hillenbrand and Garth Iorg, with Alfredo Griffin and Pat Borders some other long-tenured players in the same neighbourhood. But critically, he didn’t strike out much either. His 16.2% strikeout looks unimpressive at just 61st overall, but at 22% below league average he’s right around the top quartile.

On the bases, his very nice total of 69 steals ranks 19th in franchise history (his 22 caught stealing only 23rd), but this again is something very much impacted by era. Pillar wasn’t a burner, but he was a very good baserunner, which shows up in his overall baserunning (BsR) mark of +16.4 runs, which puts him basically in five way jumble inside the top seven in franchise history.

That brings us finally to Pillar’s bread and butter, the defensive side. There is a significant split here, as UZR credit him with saving about 30 runs more than the average of the position played, whereas DRS is more than double that at 63. Even just using UZR, he ranks as one of the top 10 defensive players in franchise history by runs saved, and more like top 5 by UZR. He wasn’t Devon White, perhaps not even Jesse Barfield, but he’s pretty clearly on the podium when it comes to Blue Jays preventing runs in the outfield.

That UZR/DRS split makes a pretty significant difference when assessing his place in Blue Jays history. It’s fundamentally the difference between whether he was more an average regular, or above average regular across his tenure as the following chart of productivity vs. time compared to other Blue Jays shows (through 2018, it wasn’t worth adding 2019):

If you buy into Pillar was a good defender (red dot), then he was very good, but with a lot of similar type players. If one sees him as an exceptional defender, then he’s in more rarefied air, with only about a dozen other Blue Jays who rival his combination of productivity and tenure.

If we limit the comparison to the 34 other outfielders who had at least 500 PA with the Blue Jays, it looks like this:

Measuring Pillar by UZR, he’s similar in terms of tenure and overall value with two other outfielders: Jose Cruz and Shawn Green. Interestingly, the next best comparison is Reed Johnson (at 2302 PA and just under 2 WAR/650), to whom Kevin Pillar was often compared as a prospect for being a late round college senior who moved quickly through the minors and for their overall skillsets.

Pillar by DRS isn’t really similar to anyone. The closest would be Alex Rios, who had a similar level of productivity but over a longer tenure. And the next closest, appropriately, is Devon White (at 2979 PA and 4.56 WAR/650).