108: Kevin Pillar is more than just defence ... Finally

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a ... offensively disciplined Kevin Pillar ? (photo: sportsnet.ca)

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a ... offensively disciplined Kevin Pillar ? (photo: sportsnet.ca)

By: Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

Blue Jays fans shouldn’t need another reason to get excited about their 2017 lineup. 

With Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, and newcomer Kendrys Morales, the “death-to-opposing-pitchers” identity this team has developed over the past few seasons doesn’t seem to be in any real jeopardy (yes, even with the sad departure of 40-home-run-man Edwin Encarnacion).

In fact, the total home runs hit between those five players last season was greater than the total homers hit by the entire rosters of the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, and San Francisco Giants.

And with those big power hitters lurking in the middle of the Jays lineup, you may even be forgiven for feeling a twinge greedy when I tell you they might also have a secret weapon this season ... 

Because if this spring training is any indication, you best watch out for Kevin Pillar.

***

Of course Pillar isn’t going to have the same power numbers as those big Jays bats. But he is still showing every indication that he intends to shed his label as a defensive specialist (you don’t earn the nickname “Superman” for nothing) and prove to people that he’s a true all-around talent.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be pigeonholed as a specialist at something,” Pillar told reporters earlier this spring. “I want to be known as one of the best overall and that just comes with an overall game.”

(And if I have to prove to you Pillar is a defensive wizard, his 40.2 defensive runs above average over the past two years is the fifth highest in the majors. Also, go watch somedamn highlights would you?)

It’s not like offensive success is totally unprecedented for Pillar either. Over his minor league career he won numerous awards, hitting .324/.367/.479 and registering 535 hits in 413 games.

But, as every fan knows, his big league career has been a little more inconsistent, and therefore much more frustrating (for him and for us). 

Over the past two seasons, Pillar has actually posted a very respectable average of .272, which is a good deal higher than the league average of .255. 

So why does Pillar get so little love at the plate ? 

Let’s be honest, I doubt I was the only one who wrote “better plate discipline from Pillar” on their Christmas wish-list last December. Considering his speed, his dismal .303 on-base percentage in 2016 left a lot to be desired ... and also made him the butt-end of many hilarious Twitter jokes (see: @KPRatherWalk).

And judging by his comments at the start of spring training, it sounded like Pillar was asking Ol’ Saint Nick for the same thing.

“Obviously, staying in the strike zone is the biggest thing for me,” Pillar said, “and that’s going to be my biggest focus in spring training, just fine tuning an approach and learning to sit on pitches and evolving as a hitter.”

After appearing in 20 Grapefruit league games and registering 53 at-bats, we’re finally beginning to find out if Pillar made the “nice” list. And, by the looks of things, the guy must have been Mother Theresa.

So far this spring he’s hit .340/.407/.509 with a .916 OPS, by far the best preseason numbers of his career. And despite registering a very impressive eight extra-base hits, it’s the six walks he’s drawn - coupled with a more focused approach - that has earned him praise from manager John Gibbons.

Two weeks ago Gibbons told reporters that Pillar “looks like a different guy” offensively, emphasizing that he was showing a lot more discipline at the plate.

It’s important to remember, however, that better plate discipline doesn’t always mean a player has to take more pitches. It could mean swinging more, just at better pitches - specifically the one you’re looking for.

This holds especially true for Pillar, as he is one of the odd cases of players who don’t walk much but who also don’t strikeout. Usually bad plate discipline is synonymous with tons of Ks, but Pillar actually has one of the lowest strikeout rates on the Blue Jays.

He had the fewest strikeouts of all Jays hitters with more than 450 at-bats last year. And in 1212 plate-appearances over the last two seasons, he has only struck out 175 times. 

To put that in perspective, Michael Saunders struck out 157 times last season alone. 

Pillar also has a career .324 average on the first pitch, so rest assured he’ll still get his hacks in.

But if he keeps up this production, just don’t expect many more Twitter jokes ...

***

Follow Tyler and #Section108 on Twitter: @TylerJoseph10