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Top 60 All-Time Greatest Jays: #35 Kevin Pillar

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Milwaukee Brewers v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Kevin Andrew Pillar | CF | 2013-2019

Ok, this surprised me. I didn’t expect to see Kevin on the list. But then he is number 5 on the Baseball Reference. Blue Jays leader board for defensive WAR.

Kevin Pillar was the Blue Jays’ 32nd round pick in the 2011 draft. He is one of just two players chosen in that round to make the majors. Billy Burns was the other. He played center field for the A’s and Royals for parts of four seasons. Pillar hit well, climbing the ladder in the Jays minor league system. When you are drafted in the 32nd round, you don’t get to jump levels, but Piller made study progress. He hit .324/.367/.479 in 413 minor league games, with a better walk rate than he’s ever shown us in the majors.

Kevin got a call up in mid-August 2013 when Melky Cabrera when down with an injury. Pillar played almost every day (mostly playing left field), hitting .206/.250/.333.

He was up and down a fair bit in 2014. They called Kevin up in May to spell Colby Rasmus, who was out with a hamstring injury. Kevin got sent back down in mid-June (hitting .243/.237/.324 will cause that). A couple of weeks later, he and Anthony Gose were recalled.

Kevin was sent back down just a few days later. You might remember that he didn’t appreciate being removed for a pinch hitter (Gose). At the time, I said, ‘if you aren’t hitting, you better be a good teammate,’ but then I suppose having Anthony Gose pinch-hit for you would be tough to take. Brad Glenn was called up to take his place, and if you waterboarded me, I couldn’t tell you much about Glenn, other than he was a career minor league outfielder. A quick look at Baseball Reference tells me he had 16 MLB PA with one hit.

In late August, Kevin's time in the doghouse was up. Actually, it was more that the team had had enough of watching waiver pickup Nolan Reimold fail at the plate and in the outfield. Maybe Pillar wasn’t hitting, but at least he could make the catches in the outfield. Pillar had a nice little hot stretch with the bat over that last month of the season, hitting .289/.333/.447. We’d soon find out that Kevin was the king of the hot streak. Unfortunately, he was also king of the cold streak.

Coming out of spring training in 2015, Kevin had a full-time job. He was put into left field. He had a pretty decent April, hitting .273/.297/.398, but what really got our attention was that he seemed to be making a highlight-reel catch almost every game. Dalton Pompey started the season in center field but wasn’t hitting at all and seemed to be taking his batting troubles into the field with him. Pillar and Dalton switched spots, and then, in early May, Dalton was sent to the minors.

Kevin’s bat decided to take May off, he hit .181/.237/.257 for the month, but he was still making the plays in the outfield. Kevin was either hot or cold all year, putting up monthly OPS numbers of .694, .494, .911, .715, .603, and .873. All in, he hit .278/.314/.399 in 159 games, with 12 home runs and 25 stolen bases (his career-high). I often wonder what would have happened if Kevin had hit that .181 in April and Dalton had put up ok numbers. Would I be writing about Pompey now?

Pillar’s bat might have been inconsistent, but his glove was consistently excellent. Wilson gave him their defensive player of the year in center field. I thought he got robbed in the Gold Glove voting.

Kevin suffered an oblique injury in May. It was caused by a sneeze, one of those ‘it could only happen in baseball-type of injury.’

Pillar had a terrific time of it in our first time in the playoffs in 22 years. In our five games against the Rangers, he hit .333/.333/.571 with a home run, 2 doubles, and 4 RBI. He wasn’t quite as good against the Royals, .238/.333/.381 with 3 doubles, 2 RBI, and 2 steals.

We got more of the same in 2016. He had hot streaks when he looked like the best hitter in the league and then had stretches where you’d wish the team could DH for him and let the pitchers hit. He hurt his thumb sliding into second in early August and spent some time on the DH. He didn’t hit a home run in the second half of the season. He finished the season with a .266/.303/.376 with 7 home runs. The thumb injury likely contributed to the slightly lower than expected numbers.

He was a nominee for the Gold Glove in center field (meaning he was in the top three for voting).

Kevin had a rough time in the playoffs that year. He had 3 hits in 32 at-bats in the Wild Card, the three-game ALDS win over the Rangers, and the five-game ALCS loss to Cleveland.

Coming into spring training in 2017, Pillar was saying all the right things about being more selective, not chasing that pitch off the plate. He wanted to bat leadoff. And, through spring training, he appeared to be following through, hitting .345/.406/.500 with a walk rate three times his normal. Gibby told us:

.“He’s showing more discipline,” Jays manager John Gibbons said. “It was something he was conscious of in spring training. He’s always been an aggressive hitter, but he’d chase out of the zone any time he got two strikes.

“But he’s backed off of that and laying off that stuff. Once he gets (pitches) in the zone, he’s going to be a heck of a better hitter.”

But, like me, with my occasion decisions to eat better, his resolve ended with the start of the season. I mean, SB mails me my monthly cheese doodles, and someone has to eat them. With Kevin, someone has to swing at those sliders two feet off the plate.

For a guy who had huge hot and cold stretches, his season to season numbers were amazingly consistent. You knew you were going to get an OPS within about 10 points of .700. You didn’t need PECOTA to tell you what he was going to hit. This season his line was .256/.300/.404 with 16 home runs, the high water mark for his time with the Jays. And his 33 walks were also the high point for his time with the team.

Again he was a finalist in Gold Glove voting, but, watching him play defense, he didn’t seem to have quite the same range as he slowed in previous years. I felt that the years of running into walls and throwing himself to the ground to make spectacular catchers was starting to take a toll on him.

Kevin also had a moment of controversy. After being struck out by Braves pitcher Jason Motte, Kevin shouted a homophobic slur at the pitcher (which would have been an everyday occurrence 30 years ago). Pillar apologized and was given a two-game suspension by the team.

He had another very Kevin Pillar type season in 2018, hitting .252/.282/.426 (falling nicely inside that 10 point range from a .700 OPS).

Kevin did have a few moments that stood out:

  • On March 31st, with the Yankees’ Delin Betances on the mound, Kevin singled, then stole second, third, and home plate.
  • On July first, he made an absolutely incredible catch:
  • On July 15th, he suffered a strange injury, throwing himself to the ground, making a diving catch, spraining his ‘sternoclavicular joint’ in his chest, which cost him three weeks of the season. Jays trainer Nikki Huffman said it would have been dire, “If those go backward instead of forwards, it can be fatal. They can cut off your airway, they can cut off arteries, they can cut off nerves that go to your arm. So, it was a pretty emergent situation yesterday with him.”

About a week into the 2019 season, the Blue Jays traded Kevin to the Giants for Alen Hanson, Derek Law, and Juan De Paula. Hanson was terrible. Law was slightly less awful. DePaula is still in the system. There is a bit of pressure on him to make the trade worthwhile.

Kevin hit .264/.293/.442 with 21 home runs for the Giants in 2019. After the season, he signed with the Red Sox as a free agent. At the end of August, they traded him to the Rockies.

As a Blue Jay, Pillar hit .260/.297/.396 with 55 home runs, 69 steals, and 111 walks.

I don’t think anyone would argue too much if I said that Pillar was the second-best defensive center fielder in team history. And he’s probably no all that far behind Devon White. I’d put him the third-best defensive outfielder in team history. I’d have Jesse Barfield above him too. Barfield had great range and the best outfield arm I’ve seen.

The hot streaks always had me hoping that one day, he could put it all together. That he tended to start each season on a hot streak (career he has hit .271/.307/.446 in April. The .753 OPS is the best of any month. He has a career .600 OPS in May) helped him out. First impressions are a big thing. When you start hot, it takes everyone a long time to realize when you are in a cold stretch.

He tended to be an all-out all the time guy. He likely would have been better off to pick his spots. Maybe if we are behind a few runs, crashing into a wall to make a catch might not be worth it. John Gibbons pointed out, loudly, that trying to steal third with two out and down several runs might not be the best move. And if he could have maybe relaxed a bit at the plate, maybe he could have taken a few more walks and balanced out the cold stretches a bit. Matt pointed out that his 4.2% walk rate was 8th lowest in Jays history with the Jays.

But, baseball is entertainment, and Kevin was very entertaining. I could have saved myself several hundred words by just running a bunch of clips of his outstanding catches. And he was part of the Jays teams that made it back to the playoffs for the first time in far too many years.

Kevin Pillar’s place among Blue Jays batting leaders:

bWAR: 20th

Defensive WAR: 5th

Batting average: 30th, .260

Games played:30th, 695

Doubles: 23rd, 156

Home runs: 40th, 55

Stolen bases: 19th, 69