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The Rise of Kevin Pillar

If I surveyed baseball fans from around North America not many could probably tell me too much about Kevin Pillar and that would be understandable. 2015 was his first notable season and I would suspect most people had seen one of his highlight plays on TV or online. I will post one of his superman catches below if you have yet to see the miracle of flight. Pillar is an interesting player to me because his arrival was not that of a top prospect and he arrived in the majors at time when defense is gaining momentum. He is a great story of an underdog and had to fight his way to ensure he ever got his chance at a breakout 2015 season.

After a promising Division II College career, Pillar assumed that his success despite being at a smaller school would get him drafted. Enough so that he and his friends went out on draft day waiting for his name to be called. That never happened and by day three of the draft Pillar was not paying too much attention when he was selected by the Blue Jays in the 32nd round as the 979th selection of the 2011 Major League Draft. College seniors who get selected at the end of the draft are organizational fillers, long shot lottery tickets and not treated to the large signing bonuses like the early round picks. Pillar received a $1,000 signing bonus and has been quoted saying after taxes the $500 left wasn’t enough to buy the iPhone he wanted, for the remaining money he would have to ask his mother. It’s great to see stories of players who take their multi-million dollar signing bonus and do nice things like paying off their parents mortgages, instead Pillar’s mom had to chip in for his phone.

Instead Pillar accepted what he was given and set out to prove everyone wrong. In 2011 at age 22 (+1.5 yrs above average) in Rookie League he hit .347/.377/.534 winning The Appalachian League batting title and was named an Appalachian League All-Star, setting a team record in Average, On base and slugging percentage along the way. He capped 2011 off with being called up to the Northwest Leauge to help the Vancouver Canadians win the League title while hitting .391 in 5 games. In 2012 he would continue to impress in A ball & get promoted to Advanced A ball while playing in 128 games hitting .323 and stealing 51 bases. He was awarded Midwest League MVP, given mid & post season All Star honours and was named the best hitting prospect in the Midwest League by Baseball America. Again he would cap the year off with success by hitting .371 in the Arizona Fall League. By 2013 his success had started gather a little attention and his name started to appear on the Blue Jays top 20 prospect lists. He would play 123 games between AA & AAA hitting .307 with a .353 OBP. At the age of 24 only 2 years after being drafted Pillar would make his major league debut. He also would be the first Blue Jay’s selection of the 2011 draft to reach the majors, quite the feat for a late round selection.

Like many young players Pillar didn’t stick permanently at the majors and would again find himself fighting his way back. In his professional career this was the first time he didn’t go up to a new level and hit well, which as we know often happens in the jump to the majors. Heading into the 2015 season Pillar had seen limited success in the majors at the plate after hitting just .206/.250 in 2013 & .267/.295 in 2014. Despite his speed he only stole 1 base and showed below average power. Yet because of his strong defense and limited competition Pillar had a chance to be the Blue Jays 4th OF heading into spring training. The competition would be short-lived as Michael Saunders would have a freak accident tripping on a sprinkler head.

This would open the door for Pillar and he did not disappoint. Even as a big fan of Pillar’s potential I did not expect his breakout to be so quick and big. In 159 games Pillar hit .278/.314/.399 with 12 HR, 56 RBI, 25 SB (4 CS), 5.2 WAR (bref) and 22 Rfield playing LF & CF as one of the top defenders in the game. His defensive value was second only to Kevin Kiermaier (who took the Gold Glove by a hair) of the Rays, his WAR of 5.2 tied him with big name players like Chris Davis, Miguel Cabrera and Nelson Cruz.

It is pretty remarkable in his first full season he would bring equal value to some of the biggest names in baseball. Now many would argue that much of his value was in his defense and its hard to compare him to guys like Cruz & Davis who hit 44 & 47 HR respectably. I can agree to a certain extent as many advanced metrics value defense differently in their total value equations but that is an argument for another day. Yet today defense has become more of an important part of the conversation as players like Pillar bring a combination of excellent defense, contact skills and speed while sluggers like Cruz or Davis often have negative defensive value which is outweighed by their superior slugging skills. Finding players who bring strong combinations of many skills is also very important when constructing a team.

Given the option many teams would have chosen Davis, Cabrera or Cruz over Pillar even if they had the foresight of knowing the seasons outcomes, as many teams still value power at a greater rate which is easily demonstrated by said players contracts. Davis signed a 7 year 161 million dollar deal this offseason as teams continue to overlook flaws and pay a premium for power. Perhaps times have changed a little which is reflected in Jason Heyward‘s 8 year 184 million dollar deal this offseason. Mega contracts like Heyward’s have typically only been reserved for the elite power hitters or true pitching studs. Heyward is a player who doesn’t bring elite power but contributes very well in every category and hit the FA market at a very young age.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not projecting Pillar to be the next Heyward or saying he will again be equal in value to Davis, Cruz or similar players. We do not yet know fully what the Blue Jays have in Pillar but it does appear they struck gold with him. At worst Pillar is an exceptional defensive OF option with speed, this is why he was often considered a strong 4th OF option as he fits the bill. The ceiling of course is closer to what we saw in 2015, an elite defensive CF, around 15HR potential, 25-30 SB, strong contact skills with .300 avg potential. If Pillar continues to put up those types of numbers he will find himself a very long, financially rewarding and successful major league career.

When digging into his numbers there are not a ton of red flags saying he wont continue his success. He posted a very low 13.5% SO rate in 2015, which was 4th lowest among qualified CF and was greatly improved from his 26% SO rate in his debut season and more in line with his milb rates. While he improved his BB rate to 4,5% that is one area Pillar could look to improve which was 22/23 qualified CF last year. Increasing his OBP a little would be a big asset since he posses strong SB skills. The Blue Jays lack a true lead off hitter so with increased OBP he could be a candidate for that role. His BABIP of .306 is not unexpected given his speed and seems sustainable. Overall it appears as if 2015 was real and sustainable, if anything we have learned not to doubt Pillar.

What the Blue Jays have in Pillar is an exciting player who makes watching them very entertaining. He has earned a lot of fan appreciation and rightfully so. As with many young breakout players you have to see how they bounce back the following year. The encouraging thing for me is that we did see Pillar have bad slumps and he would adjust and bounce back. He has proven in the minors that he is very capable of hitting and will look to prove in 2016 that CF is his for the foreseeable future.

Here is a video of some Pillar highlights, around the 2:38 mark was one of my favorite catches of all time, it’s just insane.